.From a Distance

Environmental group fights diesel generators at Bayview vehicle triage

A community organization has challenged the issuance of a permit that would allow installation of two large portable diesel generators at the Bayview “Vehicle Triage Center,” a “safe parking” site created by the city of San Francisco for people living in their vehicles. 

The city sought the permit because its plan to provide “prime power” to the site by connecting to PG&E service has gone unfulfilled for nearly 14 months. The diesel generators would provide power to the vehicles at the center until PG&E connects the site to the grid. 

Candlestick Heights Community Alliance (CHCA), a community organization formed to address environmental issues in the Bayview-Hunters Point area, filed extensive comments Monday on the city’s permit application and urged the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the permitting body, to deny the application because of the harmful emissions of diesel generation.  

In their comments, CHCA highlighted an internal email in which the district’s director of engineering remarked to a colleague that the city was planning to “energize the RV village with deadly diesel PM” (particulate matter) and asking “What is SF doing?” 

The dispute is just the latest problem that has confronted the city in its year-long attempt to get occupied vehicles out of illegal vehicle encampments in Bayview and into a safe and secure location where residents will have water, electric and sanitation services, augmented by counseling and assistance in securing permanent housing. 

The plan was that the city would lease a large parking lot in Candlestick Park State Recreation Area for two years and invite people who were living in their cars or RVs in Bayview to bring their vehicles to the parking lot. 

When the Supervisors approved the lease, they noted, “the Property has existing infrastructure, including water, sewer, pavement, and electrical poles for lights, that will allow the City to quickly convert the site into a Vehicle Triage Center” (VTC).

However, it turned out that there was a problem with hooking the site to the PG&E grid. The city had to scramble to get temporary power for the parking lot lights, and the center opened in January of 2022 without electric service that could connect to RVs.  

More than a year later, there is still no power in vehicles for lighting or refrigeration or charging a phone or a laptop. Vehicle residents have also been prohibited from using propane as a power source. 

The only lighting at the VTC comes from the large overhead parking lot lights initially powered by 16 small, loud and foul-smelling diesel generators that the city brought on site when it turned out that connecting to PG&E’s power grid was not going to happen quickly. 

That decision to use temporary diesel generators had other consequences: On Jan. 6, 2023, CHCA sued the city in federal court on a variety of environmental counts, including the claim that the city was operating the 16 diesel generators without a permit and had not disclosed that fact to the district.  

The city has since replaced the unpermitted diesel generators with solar panels that power overhead lights, but the site remains without prime power nearly 14 months into its two-year lease.  

Because of the power issues, occupancy at the site has been limited to 49 vehicles, far fewer than the 155 initially contemplated. In consequence, city spending over the first year of operations has been, according to a Bay City News analysis, approximately $175,000 per person at the site.  

By way of comparison, the city recently estimated the annual per-person cost of providing shelter to be $58,400 in a dormitory-style setting and $41,535 in scattered-site permanent supportive housing. Given that the Bayview VTC model has people living in their own vehicles so the city does not have to shoulder the cost of providing housing, the annual cost at the Bayview VTC is far out of line.  

Emily Cohen, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, acknowledged as much: “The infrastructure challenges have driven up the cost, and relative to the number of people we can serve, we have been unable to expand to the full capacity because of the infrastructure challenges, which has made it disproportionately expensive. And in that way, it’s been a real challenge.” 

CHCA’s objections to the issuance of the permit focus on the fact that diesel generators are widely recognized to produce harmful emissions. The city’s own health code states: “Diesel exhaust is linked to short- and long-term adverse health effects in humans, which include lung cancer, aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, aggravation of existing asthma, acute respiratory symptoms, and chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function.” 

According to CHCA’s comments, the city’s health code restricts the use of back-up diesel generators larger than 37.3 kilowatt by private operators to a maximum of 50 hours per year. The generators the city seeks to install are each three times that size and would be used for prime power, operating 12 hours a day, seven days a week for up to 13 weeks a year. 

Helen Kang, counsel for CHCA, notes the irony in the city trying to install generators at the site that its own health code would ban if any private party sought to do so.  

CHCA’s comments fill 31 single-spaced pages with more than 100 footnotes citing legal and environmental authorities.  They allege that the VTC is “unlawfully sited” in Candlestick Point State Recreation Area and accuse the city of rushing to construct the project “without proper planning or environmental review.” 

In Kang’s mind, the issue is particularly sharp because the Bayview Hunters Point area has been recognized as an “overburdened community” from an air quality perspective, with high rates of asthma among its residents.  

The comments say that the district’s director of engineering was not exaggerating when she asked “What is SF doing?” after learning of the plan to “energize the RV village w/ deadly diesel PM.” 

Because the area is an overburdened community, the district cannot issue a permit without a 30-day period for public comment. The district’s regulations require that the notice be in writing and that the district or applicant “distribute the notice … to each address within a radius of 1000 feet of the source.” 

The generators are to be placed within the VTC, very close to the vehicles parked there. Because of that proximity, residents of the VTC would arguably have the most immediate interest in air quality on the site.  

Yet according to some residents living there, no notice of the comment period has been distributed to them. They say that no such notice was delivered to their vehicles or posted on the communal bulletin board, although, ironically, on or about the date the notice should have been distributed, the city posted a notice that the VTC would be closing at the end of the year, and all residents would need to leave then. 

The city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing did not know whether written notice had been given to VTC residents and said the Department of Public Works (DPW) managed the permit application process.  DPW could not be reached Monday night for comment.

This is not the first time that site residents have been overlooked in the permit process.  

In the city’s application for the permit, it was asked to state the distance “to the property line of the nearest residence.” The city responded that it was 1575 feet (roughly a third of a mile). 

While that appears to be the distance for neighbors living on other properties, it failed to consider people living in the 49 vehicles parked within a few hundred feet of the generators. 

In other words, while the permit application provided distance information concerning neighbors and neighboring properties, it did not include similar information for people living in the city-operated “safe parking” center.  

The public comment period closed Monday. The board has 180 days to issue a decision on the permit, though with only 10 months remaining on the lease, an earlier decision would seem likely.

-Bay City News

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