Environmental Justice Case Study: San Francisco Energy Company in Bayview/Hunter's Point, CA

Table of Contents

Above image provided byTiger Mapping Project, 1996.

The Problem

Bayview Hunters Point is a predominantly low income and minority neighborhood in the southeast corner of the San Francisco peninsula. Contained in zip code 94124, this community has been heavily burdened with toxics and hundreds of pollution sources, making Bayview Hunters Point the most industrialized neighborhood in San Francisco, California. The San Francisco Energy Company(SFEC) has proposed the development of a third power plant in the Bayview Hunters Point district. This 240 megawatt cogeneration plant would cost approximately $185 million dollars to build. The proposed plant would be located 1.6 miles from a local school, and within a three mile radius of 120 toxic sites, creating a toxic concentration four times greater than any other San Francisco neighborhood(Johnson, 1996). If constructed, Bayview Hunters Point would contain more power plants than any area its size in the nation.

The power plant proposal was subject to site certification by the California Energy Commission (CEC) after the review of an environmental asessment. Despite the fact that the analysis found negative effects to the already poor air quality in the community, the CEC approved site certification in March 1996 with a 5-0 vote. Mayor Willie Brown, claiming that the "people of Bayview Hunters Point have been dumped on enough", led the opposition of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who voted to block development of the power plant in mid-June, 1996.

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Bayview-Hunters Point, with approximately 27,400 residents, accounts for only 4% of the city's population (Kay, 1996). With the loss of several manufacturing jobs in recent years, the community has been facing an increasing poverty and unemployment rate. Many low income residents currently reside in housing projects originally built as temporary living quarters for naval shipyard workers well over 50 years ago. Both chemical and radioactive contamination have been traced to areas in and around these housing projects.

This community is currently host to two existing power plants, the city of San Francisco's largest wastewater treatment facility, both federal and state Superfund sites, hazardous waste storage facilities, and 280 "hot spots" containing toxic substances (Greenpeace Campaign Updates, 1996). Bayview Hunters Point is also home to the second largest concentration of Leaky Underground Storage Tanks (LUSTs) in the city with 53 (O'Conner). Adjacent to the community is the 522 acre Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, a national Superfund site, containing substances such as asbestos, PCBs, lead, solvents, and radioactive materials. The proposed power plant would use approximately 400,000 gallons of aqueous ammonia and release 350 tons of airborne toxics into the air each year. This is in addition to the 550 tons of similar pollutants emitted by the two existing power plants (Johnson, 1996). Nitrogen oxides, precursor organic compounds, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter (pm10) containing known carcinogens such as asbestos and lead would be released into air that already does not comply with state pm10 standards for a 24 hour period.

In direct response to the concerns of residents that they were experiencing high cancer rates, a preliminary cancer study was conducted by the City Department of Health, Bureau of Epidemiology. Using data from the California Cancer Registry and the Northern California Center, 60 black women in Bayview Hunters Point were found to have breast cancer. Approximately 41% of these cases were women who were under the age of 50. In the rest of San Francisco, 22% would be expected to have the disease (Johnson, 1996). For all women in Bayview Hunters Point, breast cancer rates are higher than those of white women in that city, who have the highest reported rates in the world. Rates of cervical cancer were also found to be double that of the citie's average. An array of other health problems have also been recently noticed by residents. At the Southeast Health Clinic, the most common reported cases are those of upper respitory problems. Higher incidences of asthma and bronchitis, especially among children at Whitney Young and Malcolm X elementary schools have many concerned. Currently, the health department is reviewing 25 years of breast cancer cases and expanding studies of asthma and bronchitis in the area.

The Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice (SAEJ) was formed in 1995 by seven local neighborhood associations which were concerned with the threat of this new power plant in their community. Many local residents felt that "enough was enough" and began to organize several small neighborhood groups together. The SAEJ has been both instrumental and effective in opposing the development of a new power plant in the Bayview Hunters Point district, as well as increasing community awareness of the detrimental human and environmental effects of pollution and toxic waste.

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Key Actors

San Francisco Energy Company

San Francisco Energy Company has proposed construction of the energy plant. The plant, as stated, poses a myriad of environmentally-related health risks.

Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice

Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice is a grassroots organization of several neighborhood groups formed primarily to fight the power plant proposal.

California Energy Commission

The California Energy Commission has approved the site certification for the proposal, and supports the construction of the plant.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors/Mayor Willie Brown

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, under the guidance of Mayor Willie Brown, blocked construction of the plant by passing a resolution opposing the power plant. This in turn prevented the execution of a mandatory lease needed for construction of the plant

San Francisco Department of Health

San Francisco Department of Health conducted a study in which increased rates of breast and cervical cancer were found in the community. The department claims that causation of environmental factors or statistical flukes could not be determined due to the limited scope of the study. Many have accused the department of blaming high cancer rates on increased poverty and inadequate gynecological care rather than toxic waste and pollution.

Local and National Media

Local and National Media were instrumental in directing attention of the struggle to both local communities and areas around the nation.

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(1990 U.S. Census Data)

Bayview Hunters Point

San Francisco

Population (1990)



Median Income



Average Income







Black 1



American Indian



Asian, Pacific Islander






The Environmental Consequences

The Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice opposes the power plant on the grounds that:

Additional pollution from a third power plant:




Particualte Matter(pm10)



Nitrogen Oxide



Precursor Organic Compounds



Carbon Monoxide



Sulphur Dioxide



  • The proposed construction site is that of a landfill, which contains soils already contaminated with toxics. SFEC has no plans of cleaning up this toxic site.

  • The plant will cause an additional 2-4 deaths per year, according to the Bay Area Quality Management District.

  • With the largest number of industrial sites and the highest rate of breast cancer in the city, Bayview Hunters Point already shares a disproportionate burden of pollution and industrialization.

    The SFEC claims that the community will actually see a decrease in the number of air pollutants. Plant spokesman, Robert Morgan, believes that the new plant will replace two older plants that are "dirtier" and less efficient. Morgan also points out that the plant complies with 186 federal, state, and local ordinances, laws, and regulations designed to protect public health and safety (Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice, 1996).

    Some community residents are advocating the construction of the power plant due to the perceived economic benefits that it will bring to the local community and the San Francisco bay area. This includes a $13 million dollar community benefits package and possessory taxes to the city amounting to $2 million dollars. However, opponents of the plant point out the fact that the plant will employ a peak construction force of 195 and a permanent work force of only 20-25. Many claim that the health of an entire community is not worth 25 jobs, half of which are only guaranteed to be residents from the local community

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    Volunteer Support

    Hundreds of local volunteers devoted hours of their own time organizing on the grassroots level. Using a variety of tactics, SAEJ embarked on a mission to educate the public. Volunteers donated time knockingdoor-to-door, hosting weekly neighborhood meetings, passing out educational flyers, and lecturing at school and church events. The SAEJ utilized the media and local newspapers to bring their struggle to the attention of local communities in the Bay.


    Networking with small groups and multinational organizations, such as Greenpeace, brought support and momentum in the fight against the proposed power plant. Several rallies and demonstrations sent hundreds of concerned citizens to city hall, urging the Board of Supervisors to ban all new industries in the Bayview Hunters Point community. Demonstrators marched in front of city hall on the day of the crucial San Francisco Board of Supervisors vote, many wearing signs saying "Stop Cancer Where It Starts." The groups most effective demonstrator was that of a bare breasted woman who had undergone a mastectomy. Standing in the middle of a major street, she held a sign saying "Who's Next?" as cars passed her on the street. This displayed the emotion that the group members felt and the lengths that these residents were willing to go to in their effort to increase awareness of their struggle.

    Legal Support

    In addition, the SAEJ sought legal assistance. Lawyers from the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights assisted in the site certification process conducted by the California Energy Commission. These groups also donated time in representing the SAEJ in administrative hearings.

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    The future of the proposed power plant looks bleak due to the fact that the San Francisco Energy Company(SFEC) cannot meet certain conditions imposed by the California Energy Commission. Legal teams representing community groups such as the Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice, are currently monitoring the activities of the SFEC. The SAEJ continues to fight against environmental racism in the bay area and is currently creating a toxic computer data base of all the hazardous waste sites in the community.

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    Within a short period of time, seven neighborhood organizations came together to fight for their community and their health. By forming one large organization, these groups were able to pool their experiences, resources, and goals for achieving a better community. This organization consisted of an executive committee, a steering committee, and group members. An executive committee of key organizers was formed to keep the organization focused on the struggle. A steering committe comprised of two members from each of the seven groups ensured that each smaller community group was given an equal voice in the decision making process. Group members, the "heart" of the organization, were largely responsible for implementing key tactics and making their voices heard.

    Although SAEJ recieved fundraisers and private donations , most funds came from an EPA Environmental Justice grant. This $28,000 grant was designed to help grassroots community organizations in their fight for environmental justice. Most activists were and still continue to be volunteers, with only one administrative assistant serving as a part time paid employee for the organization.

    Networking with other local community groups and large organizations such as Greenpeace helped extend awareness of their problem beyond the local community. Several nonviolent demonstrations and rallies were key in not only showing local government authorities that the organization was not willing to back down, but also drew media attention from both newspaper and television personnel. Personal contact through lecturing at public events, convening weekly meetings, and distributing flyers allowed the SAEJ to increase its membership, while educating school children and people in the community.

    The group gained assistance and formal recognition from the local government and the San Francisco Energy Company through legal representation. Legal representation allowed many to see that the organization not only had an emotional arguement, but a legal one as well. Through formal recognition, inclusion in evidentiary and administrative hearings, and its ability to organize, the Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice became both a powerful and successful grassroots organization.

    The author of this case study recommends the following actions:

    1. Although it is highly unlikely that the San Francisco Energy Company(SFEC) will be able to construct a third power plant in the area, the struggle of this group has not ended. It is possible that the SFEC or another organization could purchase one of the two existing power plants and retrofit it to fit its needs. The SAEJ continues to monitor the activities of the SFEC, while concurrently creating a computer database of all toxic sites in the area.

    2. The SAEJ should build upon its success and continue its fight for both the residents and the community. It is important that the SAEJ celebrate its success, and move on to face other struggles. Although one success has been achieved, residents of Bayview Hunters Point continue to face a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards and unexplained high cancer rates and respiratory ailments. The SAEJ should continue fighting for a San Francisco Board of Supervisors resolution banning the construction of new industry into the community.

    3. SAEJ must use legal action and the Clean Air Act to compel industry to reduce air pollution, and continue the struggle for cleanup of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, a national Superfund site.

    4. SAEJ should help to organize other local community and neighborhood organizations in the area. Serving as a resource in informal conferences as to how the SAEJ was formed, how this group achieved success, and other issues that arose throughout the struggle would help other grassroots organizations in their struggles.

    5. SAEJ should continue to be an active voice and leader in Bayview Hunters Point and the San Francisco Bay Area as it continues efforts to broaden community understanding and participation in local and city wide issues for environmental justice.

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    LUST--Leaking Underground Storage Tank. Generally gasoline underground tanks and home heating tanks are found buried beneath the surface of the earth. When these tanks leak, they cause contaminants such as gasoline, diesel fuel, and motor oil to leak into the soil and eventually threaten water supplies. Underground storage tanks are found in all communities, regardless of income or racial composition.

    Superfund Site--A toxic waste site that is either currently endangering a community or is a possible future risk. Federal sites are placed on a National Priority List according to the degree of risk that the sites impose on public health. Federal or state governments, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, provide for cleanup of these sites using a federal Superfund bank.

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    Key Contacts

    For more information please contact: Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice
    Address: 744 Innes Avenue
    San Francisco, CA 94124
    Voice: (415) 824-4102
    Fax: (415) 824-1061

    Greenpeace San Francisco

    (415) 512-9025


    Eng, Anne. Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law

    Greenpeace Campaign Updates.1996."Citizens Block Power Plant Proposal."June 19. Washington D.C.

    Johnson, Clarence.1996."Disputed SF Power Plant Expected To Get 1st OK." San Francisco Chronicle.March 4: 13A.

    Kay, Jane. 1996."Pollution Fears Stir Activists in Hunter's Point." San Francisco Examiner. February 26:1A.

    O'Conner, Daniel. "Leaking Undergroung Storage Tanks and Urban Neglect." http://www.earthisland.org/ei/uhp/r11-lusts.html

    PG&E website http://www.pge.com/whats_new/news/hunters_point.html

    Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice http://www.sirius/com/~abootch/SAEJ/fact.html

    Whooley, James.1995. "Bayview Fights The Power." http://garnet.berkeley.edu:3333/.mags/NPW/.npw-0395-power.html

    Melissa Ann Resslar


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