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SF Bayview air quality fears halt Recology concrete crushing

Nov 02, 2023

Recology, San Francisco's garbage company, will no longer be allowed to crush concrete or other construction materials along The City's southeastern shoreline, Bay Area regulators announced this week.

The debris-crushing facility that operated for more than a decade in Bayview-Hunters Point will need to shut down and be vacated by the end of the year, according to a recent agreement between the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the waste collection conglomerate.

Though Recology said it has been winding down its crushing operations since 2021, Thursday's move comes after the company missed a permit deadline, resulting in a violation, regulators said.

But the facility has also been the subject of longstanding complaints from residents about the health impacts of mobilized debris that fierce winds frequently kick up and blow into homes, parks, schools, churches and offices.

"We have pediatric asthma cases and increased asthma E.R. visits," said Kamillah Ealom, a resident and community organizer with the environmental justice nonprofit Greenaction. "We have examples of increasing death."

The Recology facility is just one of the many sources of harmful pollution in the Bayview, noted Ealom. It's a community bisected by two major freeways. It's home to a recycling facility, a Superfund site, The City's largest wastewater treatment facility and a biofuels processing plant that sends noxious odors into nearby homes, just to name a few.

"We just want them to consider our existing health characteristics in Bayview-

Hunters Point due to being surrounded and overwhelmed by concentrated sources of pollution. So yes, we will accept the Air District's decision to finally evict Recology," said Ealom, but "this should have happened a long time ago."

Recology has been crushing materials for recycling and reuse at Pier 94 since at least 2009 when the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution allowing a subsidiary of Norcal Waste Systems — now Recology — and a company called Raisch Products to take over a lease of the site.

Because a previous tenant used the site for the same type of activity — namely, the crushing and disposal of debris, including contaminated soils — Recology and Raisch were able to circumvent the environmental review process mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act.

In 2009, the operation was billed as a sustainable source of building materials, allowing The City to recycle and reuse demolished materials for new construction projects. But the community has long harbored doubts about the sustainability of releasing harmful dust into the air.

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"They always sell these things like being a good thing and a climate-friendly thing," said Arienne Harrison, founder and executive director of the Marie Harrison Community Foundation, an environmental and social justice nonprofit. "But the aftermath is that, no, that's not really what it's doing. You have a lot of fugitive dust …even when it comes to construction, they haven't respected our community for a very long time. Things that they get away with here in District 10, they would never do in the Sunset."

The trash giant has had a monopoly on waste collection in The City for almost a century. But after allegations of bribery and fraud sent Mohammed Nuru, former director of San Francisco's Department of Public Works, to federal prison for services wire fraud last August, the waste collector has been under intense scrutiny.

In March, Recology agreed to pay $95 million in refunds to the local ratepayers it allegedly got away with overcharging because of its cozy relationship with Nuru. Since Nuru's sentencing, others embroiled in the scandal have also faced prison time, including former Recology employee John Porter, who was charged with bribery last April in connection with a broader corruption scandal.

Still, Recology is far from the only industrial operator in the area. The Pier's lot, known as Seawall 352, is owned and operated by the Port of San Francisco. According to Port documents, the site also hosts Hanson Aggregates, a sand import and processing service, and an undeveloped tidal wetland, which is considered a natural buffer against rising seas. But the Port has plans to develop the area further, and is considering constructing an asphalt batching plant or expanding a bulk cargo operation at the site. The Port did not respond to The Examiner's request for comment.

Now Recology's departure has also surfaced concerns about what might replace it. "If I had it my way, I’d say, give the land back to God," said Harrison, referencing the threat of rising seas lapping at the low-lying southeastern stretch of Bayfront.

Port documents show that under the lowest predicted sea level rise scenarios, over 3½ acres of Pier 94 would be inundated by coastal flooding. In the worst-case scenario, some 14½ acres would be affected, or about 32% of the site.

But who or what moves into the site next may not be up to God — or the Air District. "Unfortunately, we don't have control over what the next land use is," said Veronica Eady, senior deputy executive officer at BAAQMD. But, she said, a bill known as AB617 that recently designated Bayview-Hunters Point as a priority for its Community Air Protection Program may provide some hope.

"Sometimes it might feel like you’re playing a game of whack-a-mole" when regulating the polluting industries in communities like Bayview, said Eady. "So this is going to be a really good opportunity to look comprehensively and catch whatever might be slipping through the cracks or what's coming down the pike next — or even to prevent incompatible land uses that might have otherwise been entertained."

Eady said the Air District's bid to shutter the Recology facility is just one step in a much longer process to improve the air quality and public health in the long term under the new legislation.

Harrison also sees Recology's departure as a win but far from the end of the fight when it comes to protecting the health and well-being of the Bayview-Hunters Point community.

"We’re already leaving our children, which is our legacy, in a really messed up position as far as climate justice overall," said Harrison. "I want this to be the generation where this stops happening."

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