The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has ordered a Denver-based cannabis company to shut down nine unpermitted diesel generators used to power their production facilities in East Oakland.

But the morning following the July 13 abatement order, a diesel truck still rolled into the facility’s parking lot to deliver its daily dose of fuel, with a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon and “Fuel for a Cure” slogan plastered on its side.

This isn’t the first time Green Sage has been told to put an end to their power source, whose exhaust fumes are starting to blacken the white walls of the building with soot.

The owners have faced a series of warnings from the city for building and fire code violations, including a strongly worded letter from the city in March threatening fines and criminal charges if they didn’t shut down the generators by April. Now it’s July, and the generators have been humming 24 hours a day, seven days a week for roughly two years.

An air district spokesperson said the facility’s diesel generators have “adverse air quality impacts” due to the carcinogenic compounds found in its engine exhaust, which is especially harmful for residents living in East Oakland. The neighborhood already faces disproportionate levels of air pollution due to its proximity to industrial factories and busy roadways.

“If Green Sage continues to run the generators in violation of the abatement order, then we will go to Superior Court to get a court order to shut them down,” air district spokesperson Erin DeMerritt said in an email. “The Air District would take immediate action if the generators continue to operate, but it is unclear how long it would take to get a court order.”

Fighting in the ‘Green Zone’

Also on the property are artists inhabiting one of the city’s first live-work spaces called The Oakland Cannery, which has been permitted since the 1970s. Green Sage acquired the building, alongside another property called The Tinnery, in 2016 and 2017.

Thanks to a 2018 city ordinance, residents living there and in the other 25 live-work spaces throughout Oakland’s 10-mile “Green Zone” — the city’s designated area for industrial cannabis production — are protected from evictions.

Oakland Cannery resident Alistair Monroe hangs a sign above his building, reading “protect Oakland air quality.” He and other tenants are seeking a restraining order against their landlord, Green Sage, that would force the cannabis company to shut off unsustainable diesel generators on the property. (Photo by Olivia Wynkoop/Bay City News)

But only eight of the 20 artist lofts situated on the second floor of The Cannery are currently in use. Resident Alistair Monroe said occupants started to move out of the building as the tensions between them and the property owners rose and the conditions worsened.

“We know that our landlords will not do anything. They’re going to turn their backs around and roll the dice,” Monroe said.

Monroe believes that nothing will change until there is a cease-and-desist order, hand delivered by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

Monroe isn’t backing down, however, as he’s carrying the “weight of an elephant” trying to preserve the legacy of his father — Arthur Monroe, a prominent Black abstract expressionist painter who was The Cannery’s first artist inhabitant. He also wants to protect his home and the cannabis industry.

“This is a once in a lifetime fight, and I’m not letting this one pass up,” Monroe said. “People in this building, they all wanted to leave, they were tired of it, they’d been living here for 15, 20 years. And I just said hey, I don’t have that option, my father and I don’t have the resources to leave.”

“We know that our landlords will not do anything. They’re going to turn their backs around and roll the dice.”

Alistair Monroe, Oakland Cannery resident

Most lofts in the space now look like nothing more than an empty gallery, with blank white walls and golden light spewing from the windows. But inside Monroe’s space, it feels like his painter father only stepped away from his workspace for a moment, despite his passing in 2019.

“Anything on the wall would be my father’s,” Monroe said. “I kept everything preserved, though it has a little bit of character from the cats playing on it. But we love that, nothing’s perfect, right?”

Shadowed by his two black kittens Chile and Pepper, Monroe walks past streaks, stripes and splotches of color on canvas that are posted all over the studio’s walls, next to the acquired photos, books, artwork and zany artifacts that undoubtedly inspired his father’s work.

“There’s a lot of books. I’ve had to go through 3,000 books, just to know which ones I would keep and preserve and which ones I would have to part ways with if I were to lose this place, you know, you always have to be prepared,” Monroe said.

Reminiscent of redlining

The Cannery residents, backed by the nonprofit organizations Environmental Democracy Project and the Center for Environmental Health, filed suit against the company and the cannabis tenants using the space earlier this month. They are requesting a temporary restraining order, injunctive relief and criminal penalties for violation of the federal Clean Air Act.

Tanya Boyce is the executive director of the Environmental Democracy Project, a former city planner and recent law school graduate from East Oakland who is working on the case.

“I know from firsthand experience that my part of town doesn’t get the kind of respect that other parts of town get when they know that the community is watching,” Boyce said.

But the Green Sage case is only one piece of the larger issue at hand for Boyce — she’s not anti-capitalism or cannabis, but she feels the burgeoning of the cannabis industry in Oakland is mirroring the city’s history of redlining and exclusionary housing. She calls on the city’s planning department to not permit millions of square feet of cultivation if it’s coming at the cost of people’s homes.

Boyce said she has seen how environmental racism slips through the cracks of city planning when she was working to redo the city’s industrial zoning maps. Much of it has to do with banking on the residents’ lack of knowledge on these issues — she said she saw her white colleagues permit more commercial buildings in East Oakland just because they knew it would get less pushback compared to putting them in West Oakland.

The Oakland Cannery, an artist’s live/work space at 5783 San Leandro Street, is one of the first of its kind in the city. Tanya Boyce, an attorney for tenants of the building in their fight over air quality, sees similarities between current efforts to expand cannabis businesses into Oakland’s marginalized neighborhoods and redlining policies of the 1950s that harmed Black and brown communities. (Photo by Olivia Wynkoop/Bay City News)

“These are the kinds of things that boiled my blood, when I was actually sitting at the table, looking at these people’s faces, people who I know are liberal, who I know are not racist, suggesting these things simply because they don’t have the organization out there,” Boyce said.

“They can get away with it, they can put more industry in this area, and they can kind of shuffle the board in a way that has been done for the last five, six, seven generations. This is the reason why Black and brown people are in the state that they are in,” she said.

If successful in court, the team would use the injunctive relief for a “pollution solution bootcamp,” which would educate East Oakland residents on how to identify health and pollution hazards, and what to do about them. Boyce said that one of the first steps of change is to empower residents to speak out about the everyday effects of pollution that have become a norm in the community — things like respiratory issues, or losing multiple family members in their 50s to cancer.

“I feel hopeful because I know that myself, other community organizers and other attorneys who are dedicated to this are going to stay in the fight. We’re not going anywhere, we’re going to stay right here, we stay on the ground, and we’re playing the long game,” Boyce said. “I’m not at all naive that somehow I’m going to come to town and fix Oakland. But before my days are done, we’re going to get some respect in this community.”

Green Sage, District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor’s office and the Oakland Fire Department were not immediately available for comment.