East Oakland residents protest crematorium in September 2013 (photo: Oakland Post)
Very few people want to live next door to a crematorium, especially a “mega-crematorium.”
So, when folks in an Oakland residential neighborhood next to an industrial zone near the airport found out Stewart Enterprises, the parent company of Neptune Society, had obtained a building permit in May 2012 for a 3,600-bodies-a-year warehouse facility without a public hearing, they were not happy. Neither were environmentalists, health advocates and, ultimately, politicians.
The Oakland City Council passed an emergency ordinance to block construction of the 6,300-square-foot building, but Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo ruled in August that the council couldn’t nullify a valid permit after the fact. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District had already said it would be safe and signed off on the building.
So, earlier this week, the non-profit Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) filed an environmental justice lawsuit protesting the decision and in a press release (pdf) argued that it was wrong to put “the largest crematorium on the West Coast, emitting pollutants such as arsenic, hexavalent chromium, lead and mercury, onto a community of color.”
The lawsuit claimed, “According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, this community already suffers greatly elevated risks of cancer, asthma, heart attacks and other serious health problems,” according to Courthouse News Service.
The lawsuit claims that Oakland’s planning department incorrectly identified the crematorium proposal as a general manufacturing facility, which wouldn’t require a public hearing. It argues that the city has always required public notice and a more elaborate conditional use permit for crematoriums. “The City's regulations in fact classify crematoriums as Extensive Impact Civic Activities,” the lawsuit says. “Such activities, which also include cemeteries, mausoleums, and columbariums, must first obtain a Major Conditional Use Permit prior to operation.”
CBE wants the court to set aside the planning commission’s approval of the crematorium.
The Neptune Society has been looking for a new facility to replace its older and smaller facility in nearby Emeryville since at least 2006, according to Oakland North reporters, where residential zoning made its presence problematic. The company tried out North Richmond, but neighbors there preferred it not be in their back yards.
The search for a location eventually led to Oakland, where there are already five crematoriums operating. Cremation is a lot more prevalent nationally than it used to be, rising from 3.5% in 1960 to 40.6% in 2010, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. And Mike Miller, a spokesman for Stewart Enterprises, told Oakland North it’s one of the reasons the community should leave them alone. “More families want to witness cremations,” he said. “These services are needed in the community; they have to be performed somewhere.”
The East Oakland community would prefer that “somewhere” not be less than one-half mile from their homes and the nearby “senior living home, four elementary schools, a public park, an urban garden, a community center and many churches” listed in the lawsuit.