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Politics & Policy

San Francisco sued over diesel generators at center for unhoused people

The Bayview Vehicle Triage Center in San Francisco, an area set up for homeless people living in vehicles, has been sued contending the city operates 16 unpermitted diesel generators at the site in violation of the Clean Air Act. | Joe Dworetzky/Bay City News

A citizen group brought a lawsuit Friday in federal court against the city of San Francisco, alleging that diesel generators at a city-run “vehicle triage center” in the Candlestick Point State Recreational Area violate the Clean Air Act. 

The suit asks the U.S. District Court to enjoin the city from violating the act and requests civil penalties of up to $109,000 per day for each violation.

The center sits on the San Francisco Bay in a remote parking lot at the water’s edge, just across an inlet from Hunters Point. The city leases the site from the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

The city opened the center at that location in 2021 and, according to the plaintiff’s complaint, intended for it to serve as a temporary shelter for unhoused individuals living in their vehicles. It was originally anticipated that up to 150 vehicles would use the center, each with a connection to electricity. 

According to the complaint, the city believed the location was optimal for the intended use, at least in part because the site had existing infrastructure, including water, sewer and electrical poles for lights.

The complaint alleges that notwithstanding those expectations, there is no permanent electrical service to the site and instead the city provides electricity through a cluster of 16 diesel generators that it installed and put into service without obtaining a permit under the federal Clean Air Act.

The complaint alleges that several months after the 16 generators were put into service, the city applied for permits from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to operate three large fossil fuel generators to supply power for daily needs at the center. However, the city allegedly did not disclose in its permit application that it was already serving the site with the 16 unpermitted generators.

The plaintiff believes that the city has created a dangerous and unsafe situation at the site and in the surrounding residential areas. According to the complaint, “pollution emitted from diesel generators is the number one source of cancer risks among toxic air contaminants in California.”

The complaint states that the Bayview District has a disproportionate share of San Francisco’s industrial sites, brownfields and leaking underground fuel tanks, and points out that “these are the areas where the city’s community of color lives: 89% of Bayview residents are Asian-American, Black, and Hispanic, according to the most recent census data.”

The complaint recounts a history of land use decisions by the city that have allegedly burdened the Bayview area with pollutants and harmful materials, including a wastewater treatment plant and an industrial center with multiple tenants who allegedly process concrete material, emitting harmful particulate into the atmosphere. 

An October count found there were 47 vehicles parked at the center.

No permit for the new generators has been issued, according to the complaint, and the city continues to operate the 16 generators without a permit.

“The Center still lacks electricity. Children lack light, except through the illegal operation of the generators, to do homework.”

An attempt to visit the site Tuesday was unsuccessful because security guards from a company identified as Urban Alchemy, a city contractor, denied access, even though it is located on public land. 

The city has not yet responded to the filing. Jen Kwart, the city attorney’s communications director responding to a request for comment, stated, “The City strives to protect our environment and enhance the quality of life for all San Franciscans. Once we are served with the lawsuit, we will review the complaint and respond appropriately.”

The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim.

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