CASE STUDY: A Community Fight Against a Crematorium in East Oakland

Richmond residents and later East Oakland residents fought for more than a decade against a proposed crematorium project for their cities. Their campaign and the ultimate permitting of the crematorium reveals the inadequacies of the local land use permitting process in protecting community health, despite strong and vocal resistance.

In 2006, Stewart Enterprises, a corporate owner of crematoriums and funeral homes, made a proposal to move their crematorium out of Emeryville, a city that has become increasingly residential. The intended location was in North Richmond, a community that is predominantly low-income and people of color, where residents received no notice of the proposed project to incinerate up to 3,000 bodies a year. Even the planning commissioners who were considering the required zoning modification were not notified of the health risks that would result from the project’s vaporized mercury emissions—a fact that multiple commissioners later said would have influenced their votes. (Footnote 43)Once the community became aware of the project, however, 150 residents mobilized to the City Council meeting to protest the proposed zoning changes, prompting the Council to reject the zoning changes unanimously. [44]

With the Richmond project no longer viable, Stewart Enterprises continued to operate its existing crematorium for several years, during which the company was acquired by Service Corporation International (SCI). Today, SCI is the largest single corporate owner of crematorium, cemetery, and funeral service facilities in North America, worth more than $7 billion and operating nearly 2,000 funeral homes and cemeteries. [45]

In 2011, the crematorium attempted to relocate to the Columbia Gardens neighborhood of East
Oakland, a majority African American and Latinx community next to the I-880 freeway. That August,
the company quietly applied for a zoning clearance in a commercial zone for a nearly identical
crematory project. Planning staff determined that the project did not require discretionary
reviewh and easily approved it. Once again, nearby residents were given no notice of the project.
After being alerted to the project, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and alarmed
community members worked with councilmembers to introduce an emergency ordinance that would
require discretionary review for all crematoriums, creating a mandatory public notice and community
engagement process. Five days after SCI received the building permit for its crematorium, the
emergency ordinance was passed, [46] and SCI was given notice that the project would require a
conditional use permit (CUP).

This battle continued for years, as SCI filed a lawsuit contesting the ordinance, and CBE sued
the city over the original permitting of the project. Community members rallied, submitted hundreds
of letters, and raised regional awareness of the dangerous project proposed for their backyard. [47]

After years of pressuring the City Council, community members won permanent rules requiring
discretionary review for all crematories, including a health risk analysis for all proposed projects—a
major victory for East Oakland residents. [48] Ultimately, however, the courts ruled in favor of
SCI in 2016, arguing that because the emergency ordinance was passed just days after they had
secured their building permit, they had a right to develop. Despite widespread concern, the
crematorium’s permit was granted in 2018 and began operations later that year. [49]

This campaign demonstrates the challenging context that EJ communities often face during land use struggles. SCI is just one example of the many large corporate polluters that have the ability
to “forum shop” between different environmental justice communities to site a toxic facility, with the resources to defend against many years of community opposition. As demonstrated in both Richmond and East Oakland, community members are often given little, if any, notice of projects proposed for their neighborhoods, let alone warnings regarding the health risks of these projects.

44. Jason B. Johnson. July 19, 2006. “Crematorium loses in 9-0 Council vote / 150 turn out to help stop firm’s move from Emeryville.” SFGate; groups/ceda/documents/agenda/oak042767.pdf.
45. SEC filings, i.e. Service Corporation International, Annual Report (Form 10-K) (Feb. 20, 2019); Archives/edgar/data/89089/000008908919000005/sci- 12312018x10k.htm.
46. Oakland, California, Municipal Code (2012). aspx?ID=1123448&GUID=1977FB71-2EC6-413B-8ECB- 6740B1595850&Options=ID%7cText%7c&Search=emergen cy.
47. Communities for a Better Environment. May 6, 2014. Pollution Isn’t Color Blind in Oakland; wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Pollution-Isnt-Color-Blind-in- Oakland.pdf.
48. Oakland, California, Municipal Code § 17.10.240, § 17.103.025 (2014).
49. Jean Tepperman. Nov. 15, 2017. “The Return of
the Crematorium.” East Bay Express; https://www. Content?oid=10841726.