In San Francisco’s Most Polluted Neighborhood, the Polluters Operate Without Proper Permits, Reports Say

Some concrete plants and sand facilities in Bayview-Hunters Point have had only draft permits for years. An air district spokesman said finalizing permits have taken longer “than we would have liked.”

In San Francisco, some air polluting facilities are allowed to operate for years on draft permits in violation of the Clean Air Act. Credit: Frank DiMarco/Via Getty Images

In San Francisco, some air polluting facilities are allowed to operate for years on draft permits in violation of the Clean Air Act. Credit: Frank DiMarco/Via Getty Images

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Raymond Tompkins thinks the high efficiency air filters in his old, gold Mercedes are among the car’s best features. They trap dust and tiny pollution particles, and they’re fitted with activated charcoal to help remove odors—an invaluable function for a longtime resident of San Francisco’s most polluted neighborhood. 

“You know, I’m supposed to be dead,” Tompkins, 72, said. “Most Black men don’t live this long, here in Bayview. I’ve been going to a funeral every month.”

Living in Bayview-Hunters Point, a mostly low-income and minority neighborhood in the southeastern part of the city, means blinking away the dust from hills of sand and asphalt piled in industrial yards and ignoring the stench from a wastewater treatment facility and an animal rendering plant next door to their homes and schools. 

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A confluence of polluting sources have dominated the four square-mile neighborhood for decades, and a state environmental analysis identified the Bayview area as having the highest cumulative pollution burden in the city. 

State and local agencies should be actively trying to reduce the pollution in Bayview, local advocates said. Instead, they have continued to allow polluting facilities to operate there without final pollution permits.

On Bayview’s Piers 92 and 94, which border San Francisco Bay, a concrete plant and two sand offloading facilities have operated for years without final pollution permits from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, according to reports released in 2017 and 2020 by the Environmental Justice Law Clinic at Golden Gate University’s School of Law. The concrete plant is owned by CEMEX Construction Materials, and the sand facilities were sold by Hanson Aggregates Mid-Pacific to Martin Materials in November.

While the air district was notified as early as 2017 of the alleged violations, they have continued to delay enforcement actions and allowed most of the plants to keep running, saying that they have been working with the facilities on draft permits.

But more than four years after the air district contacted the facilities with notices of violation, those permits remain in the draft stage, while the facilities keep operating. 

“Under the Clean Air Act, if you don’t have a permit, you can’t pollute,” said Lucas Williams, an associate law professor at Golden Gate University and a staff attorney at the law clinic. The Clean Air Act, the primary federal air quality law enacted in 1963, requires that to operate, polluting facilities obtain permits from local air quality agencies. 

The air district requires polluting facilities to submit completed permit applications within 90 days of being notified by the air district of a violation, or else they will be prevented from operating—a rule that the air district fails to enforce, the report said. 

Instead, the district allows for “an extended period of back-and-forth” with the permit applicant when it fails to submit sufficient information, the report said. This long standing practice results in permits that are pending for years, while polluting facilities operate in the meantime.

Ralph Borrmann, the air district’s public information officer, said in an email that the agency has delayed moving the permits forward because “additional information is still needed to better understand the impacts to the neighborhood.” The air district will conduct an environmental review of the facilities to learn more, as required by the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act, he said. 

“These projects have taken the Air District more time to assess than we would have liked,” Borrman said. “As the Air District has gone through this process, rules, policies and priorities have changed, which led to some delay.”

He added that the air district “attempts to collect penalties in amounts that deter future violations.” 

The air district did file a complaint with another concrete plant that violated its permit, seeking a penalty for $75,000 from Central Concrete Supply. The district eventually settled with Central Concrete for $9,000.  Recology, a recycling facility that had been operating a concrete crushing operation while waiting for a permit it had applied for in 2016, shut the division down after receiving a notice of violation in 2021. 

The Bay Area air district regulates stationary sources of air pollution in the nine Bay Area counties. For concrete and sand facilities, the air district distributes permits limiting the amount of throughput, or raw material, that is allowed to be processed over a given time period. The air district also regulates the moisture content of processed material—material that exceeds 5 percent moisture content is exempt from permitting requirements.

However, the CEMEX concrete plant  “regularly” exceeded the amount of throughput without authorization from the air district, processing as much as five times more than its permit limit of 60,000 tons, according to the law clinic reports. 

The two Hanson sand and material handling facilities on Piers 92 and 94 have operated without permits since 2001. The facility on Pier 94 was initially exempt, but lost the exemption when the air district discovered that the moisture level of its stockpiles dipped below 5 percent. 

CEMEX and Martin Marietta did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Residents are concerned about the health impacts of having these facilities operate in such close proximity to their homes, and within a couple thousand feet of an emergency Covid-19 homeless shelter. 

Concrete batch plants like the ones on Piers 92 and 94 emit types of fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 and PM 10, the names referring to particles that are 2.5 or 10 microns in size. These particulates can remain in the atmosphere for weeks and reduce visibility. They can also be easily inhaled and penetrate the lungs, leading to negative health outcomes including asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart attack and premature death. 

Bayview has some of the highest rates of hospitalization and the highest number of emergency room visits because of asthma in the city, according to a 2016 study from the San Francisco Health Improvement Partnership. 

Williams, the law clinic staff attorney, said facilities operating without valid permits should be shut down in the interim, instead of just given a slap on the wrist in the form of fines. Lax enforcement on the part of the air district is indicative of a more widespread pattern and practice of not protecting the Bay Area’s disadvantaged communities, he said. 

“The bottom line is that the district should not be putting more polluting facilities where there are already a ton of polluting facilities,” Williams said.

The air district does not have the ability to shut these facilities down: They would need a court order or the approval of a hearing board to do so, said Simrun Dhoot, a senior air quality engineer at the air district, in an interview with Inside Climate News. 

It’s within the air district’s discretion whether or not to bring an enforcement action against a violator, said Dave Owen, an environmental law professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. In this case, the air district has decided that a better course of action than shutting down a facility was to work with the facility on a new permit, he said.  

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But while the air district can’t unilaterally make a decision to shut down operations, it could “at least initiate enforcement action, and the threat of a shutdown order would probably lead the facilities to take permitting and pollution control more seriously,” Owen said.

“I think it’s an issue,” he added. “For industrial-scale emitters to operate for years under draft permits and in an overburdened community isn’t how things are supposed to work.”