No new crematoria, say council and demonstrators

Protesters can be seen speaking and holding signs to oppose a proposed crematorium. Photo by Nigel Manuel

Protesters speak and hold signs in opposition to a proposed crematorium. Photo by Nigel Manuel

About a dozen demonstrators, including a few small children and a pregnant woman, carrying large neon signs decrying the environmental and health hazards of building a crematorium in East Oakland filled the back of Oakland’s City Council chambers at Tuesday evening’s council meeting, which also took on redevelopment at Jack London Square and recognized community volunteers and organizations.

The group was there to show support for an ordinance that the council unanimously approved that will permanently limit construction and expansion of crematoria in Oakland. The new ordinance supersedes an emergency ordinance approved by the council May 15, 2012, banning crematorium construction for a limited period.

Most of the attendees supporting the ordinance Tuesday night were from Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), an environmental organization that works with communities in Oakland, Richmond, and other low-income populations throughout the state. Its members are opposed to plans to build a new crematorium at 98th Avenue and Kitty Lane in East Oakland. Some of their bright signs read: “Ashes to Cash” and “Crematoria vapors: colorless yet toxic.”

East Oakland resident Robert Yao, 62, urged the council to “get behind this” effort to stop crematoria construction. He said residents are concerned about exposure to toxins, such as mercury, which is released from dental fillings when the bodies are cremated.

Others also spoke about air quality issues and how a facility that burns thousands of bodies each year would exacerbate the unhealthy air conditions already present in the lower-income area. One woman spoke in Spanish about her young family members who she said were suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems because of polluted air in the neighborhood that houses other industrial facilities. She said she believes the incinerator will release unhealthy chemicals into the air her family breathes.

Under the legislation, the city will not allow new crematoria and will curtail any expansions to existing facilities unless the companies obtain a special permit through the city’s planning commission. This decision comes after years of contention between residents and environmental activists and the Neptune Society of Northern California’s plan to move to the East Oakland facility. Stewart Enterprises, the company behind the crematorium, sued the city in 2012 over what they considered legislation targeting their specific business. A judge ruled in favor of Stewart Enterprises in August 2013. The city appealed the decision, and revamped the ordinance to allow for crematorium construction with the special permit—a process Stewart Enterprises will be required to complete before their plans can move forward.

CBE member Esther Goolsby said to the council during the public comment session that the group “will continue to work on improving air quality” and fight against Stewart Enterprises.

The council also approved a plan to go forward with the Jack London Square Redevelopment Project, despite objections from residents and members of the Jack London District Association (JLDA), a nonprofit group which advocates for planning and development in the neighborhood supported by residents, business and property owners. Councilmember Dan Kalb (District 1) was the lone abstention on the vote.

The development company, San Francisco-based Ellis Partners LLC, calls for an approximately $400 million construction plan, which includes a pair of mixed-use high-rise buildings for ground-floor commercial space and soaring residential units. Before the vote, JLDA president Ben Delaney urged the council to consider other development plans that don’t include a nearly 300-foot building on the waterfront. “We are in favor of moving more people into Jack London Square.” he said. “We just don’t want the height.”

Kalb said he couldn’t support the proposed designs for Jack London Square. “It seems out of place,” he said. “That building is too large for that site.”

In other council business, Mayor Jean Quan and police Chief Sean Whent recognized the Oakland Black Officers Association for its 44 years of service. The group works to improve and support the working conditions of black members in the Oakland police force Also, three young leaders from Councilmember Noel Gallo’s District 5 in East Oakland were honored for their commitment to cleaning the streets on Foothill Boulevard. “They love Oakland,” Gallo said about 11-year-old Delmy Raymundo, 14-year-old Fabian Guerra, and 12-year-old Anthony James, who attended the meeting with family members.

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