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Oakland Group Fights Giant Crematorium

OAKLAND (CN) - A neighborhood group sued Oakland, fighting its plans for "one of the largest crematoriums on the West Coast," that would burn up to 3,600 bodies per year, polluting a poor, minority neighborhood with arsenic, hexavalent chromium, lead and mercury.

The Communities for a Better Environment, a nonprofit, sued Oakland and its Planning Commission for permitting the crematorium that Stewart Enterprises plans to build East Oakland. Stewart Enterprises is named as a real party in interest.

"This proposal would site one of the largest crematoriums on the West Coast, burning up to 3,600 bodies per year, emitting pollutants such as arsenic, hexavalent chromium, lead and mercury, in a low-income community of color," according to the complaint in Alameda County Court. "According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, this community already suffers greatly elevated risks of cancer, asthma, heart attacks and other serious health problems. Public Health attributes these risks to the disproportionate share of environmental harms in East Oakland, including higher exposures to toxic air contaminants and other pollutants."

The site is in the same neighborhood as a senior living home, four elementary schools, a public park, an urban garden, a community center and many churches, according to the lawsuit.

People in the area have been working to fight blight, establish green businesses and plant community gardens. Community members from the four neighborhoods closest to the crematorium - Columbia Gardens, Sobrante Park, Elmhurst and Brookfield Village - have appeared before Oakland officials to "advance their vision of a sustainable Oakland," according to the complaint.

For more than two years, Communities for a Better Environment, local businesses and community members have been sending letters, signing petitions, and testifying at City Council and Planning Commission meetings to protest the crematorium.

Despite all of this, and without advance notice, the Planning Commission granted Stewart Enterprises a building permit for the crematorium under the "General Manufacturing" classification.

General Manufacturing usually involves activities such as glass manufacturing and textile mills, which the city permits with a small buffer zone as a matter of right in much of East and West Oakland without notice to the public, a conditional use permit or an environmental review.

"However, the City's zoning laws do not, and never have allowed new crematoriums to operate as a matter of right," the complaint states. "The City's regulations in fact classify crematoriums as Extensive Impact Civic Activities. Such activities, which also include cemeteries, mausoleums, and columbariums, must first obtain a Major Conditional Use Permit prior to operation."

Communities for a Better Environment informed the City Council that crematoriums are an Extensive Impact Civic Activity, but Council ignored its own planning code and stood by its staff's "incorrect interpretation" of the code, according to the complaint.

"This incorrect decision has denied the public its legal right to participate and offer a voice in the siting of a specific polluting facility, threatens to disadvantage local businesses in an area striving for economic transformation, and could also push the cumulative impact of pollution in East Oakland past the tipping point," the group says.

Communities for a Better Environment seeks writ of mandate setting aside the Planning Commission's decision and prohibiting the city from granting permits for crematoriums without a Major Conditional Use Permit.

It is represented by Shana Lazerow.

Oakland officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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