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Allen Brothers Mortuary's wants to install a crematorium into the one a stall of this three-car garage located behind the chapel on Twin Oaks Valley Road in San Marcos. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
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Proposed crematorium brings air quality, climate change concerns

SAN MARCOS — A proposed crematorium in San Marcos has a legion of residents concerned about the potential air quality issues and greenhouse gas emissions it could produce.

Owned by Allen Brothers Mortuary, the proposal has ushered in a wave of activism, with over 1,000 people signing a petition calling for the city to reject the proposal for its current location. Located at 435 N. Twin Oaks Valley, the facility would sit in close proximity to a senior center, a post office and a public park. Because the area is currently zoned as commercial, the proposed facility needs a conditional use permit exemption to do business in the area.

Ralph DeSiena, who for 28 years worked as an air pollution meteorologist for San Diego County, has led the charge for the movement of residents opposed to the facility. He said his time spent as an air monitor for the county has influenced his outlook on it.

“I have some experience in air quality modeling and air transport of emissions and things like that,” he said. “I think I’m kind of versed in air pollution and meteorology.”

DeSiena said he first became familiar with the issue while paying a visit to the post office.

“We were basically at the post office and it’s right across the street from the post office and we saw the sign,” DeSiena said. “And we said, ‘Oh, what’s the city planning here?’ And we saw that it was a crematorium and thought, ‘This is a really, really bad location for something like this.’”

DeSiena said his top concerns center around both greenhouse gas emissions generated from the facility, as well as potential mercury emissions. He said if Allen Brothers performed 250 cremations per year, that could lead to up to 70 tons of additional greenhouse gases per year in the atmosphere, which he believes would make it more difficult to meet the city’s Climate Action Plan goals as mandated under state law.

During the cremation process, a fire burns at a temperature of 1,400 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three hours.

Statistics provided by the Green Burial Society conclude that each cremation uses 92 cubic meters of natural gas, equal to a 490 mile car trip in greenhouse gases produced. The society also points out that the crematory industry produces 1.74 billion pounds of carbon emissions per year in the U.S., equivalent to 163,717 cars on the road per year and energy consumption of over 92,000 homes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

Greenhouse gases are not the only concern, however.

According to a 2012 facility emissions inventory report obtained by The Coast News for Cremation Services Inc., located in Vista, the crematorium emitted over 160 pounds of hydrogen chloride into the atmosphere for that year, as well as over 11 pounds of mercury. Side effects of exposure to hydrogen chloride include both the development of asthma, as well as cataracts and glaucoma, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Mercury has risen as a central concern in the activists’ push against the proposed San Marcos facility.

“Mercury is especially dangerous in this heated vaporized form because when it’s inhaled, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to the brain and other organs,” said DeSiena when addressing City Council during its July 24 meeting. “Even very small amounts of mercury can be dangerous. The EPA confirms that there are serious health effects from even low-level exposure to mercury, especially to children.”

A study conducted in 1998 pointed to mercury concentration found in the hair of crematoria workers at a rate of at least 1.5 times higher than an average person.

“Also, in the top two inches of soils around crematoria, the concentration of mercury was found to be about twice as concentrated as compared to the background,” wrote Kestas Bendinskas, a professor chemistry at State University of New York-Oswego, in a fact sheet about human health impacts of crematoria which included a summary of that study.

DeSiena says he does not oppose crematoria on the whole, but does in this particular area, due to its location in the middle of a valley and close to an area heavily populated by San Marcos’ Latino population. He also expressed a concern about the potential for odors, pointing to the example of the Vista crematorium, which he says he has driven past many times and smelled.

But Linda Allen, president of Allen Brothers, previously told The Coast News that she believes concerns about odors are overblown.

“People think there is going to be odor and there is no odor at all,” she said. “There is nothing emitted out of the chamber.”

The proposal must receive approval from both the Planning Commission and City Council. It must also document that the project can comply with the California Environmental Quality Act’s greenhouse gas and environmental justice mandates, as well as get a permit to operate from the San Diego Air Pollution Control District. The Control District is a government agency which tracks and regulates emissions from industrial facilities, including crematoria.

According to permit application documents obtained by The Coast News, Allen Brothers has chosen the firm Consultants Collaborative to help it through the permitting process. Other major city projects which got a green light from the city of San Marcos with the help of that firm have included Grand Plaza, Nordahl Marketplace and Palomar Station, according to the firm’s website.

Photo Caption: Allen Brothers Mortuary’s wants to install a crematorium into the one a stall of this three-car garage located behind the chapel on Twin Oaks Valley Road in San Marcos. File photo