Rachel Stern

From fryers to fuel


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GREEN CITY At Ar Roi Thai in Nob Hill, about 75 gallons of oil are left over every month from the creation of the restaurant’s deep-fried cuisine, according to manager Theresa Shotiveyaratana. But instead of dumping it, the business donates its gunk to the newly established SFGreasecycle, which converts it into biodiesel that is now used to power San Francisco city vehicles such as Muni buses and fire engines.

As of Dec. 31, 2007, the city completed a yearlong project proposed in Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Biodiesel Initiative, which called for all 1,600 municipal vehicles to run exclusively on B20, a mixture of 20 percent pure biodiesel and 80 percent traditional petroleum diesel. The blend is compatible with most modern-day diesel engines and reduces carbon monoxide emissions by 12 percent and the particulate matter found in smog by 20 percent.

But most of that biodiesel hasn’t been generated locally: the city is halfway through its three-year master fuel contract with San Francisco Petroleum, which gets the stuff from soybean oil produced in the Midwest.

"It’s really not enough that a city looks at using biofuels to offset fossil fuels," said Karri Ving, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s biofuels coordinator and one of SFGreasecycle’s three staff members. "We don’t want to go from one environmentally disastrous fuel to another. We want less shipping miles from the middle of the country."

That’s where SFGreasecycle, a $1.3 million program put into action by the SFPUC last month, comes in. It picks up used fats, oils, and grease (known in the program as FOG) at no charge from wherever people are willing to spare them. The list currently comprises mostly eateries, from chains like Baja Fresh and locals like Ar Roi, but also households, high schools, a synagogue, and museums such as the de Young.

About 170 restaurants have signed up so far, allowing the organization to collect an average of 5,000 gallons of so-called yellow grease — or what comes straight from the frying pan — per month. Furthermore, its efforts are a way of keeping congealed grease out of sewer pipes, which costs the city roughly $3.5 million in cleanup efforts per year, according to the SFPUC.

Ving said the organization has even loftier goals in mind. By the beginning of 2010 it aims to collect 100,000 gallons of grease per month. That’s about 20 percent of the five to six million gallons of diesel that the Department of the Environment estimates the municipal fleet burns per year.

Mark Westlund, the spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, said using the grease as a replacement for the imported fuel is a real possibility as they have "an almost one-to-one conversion rate."

SFGreasecycle uses four biodiesel treatment plants in the Bay Area to convert the grease to usable fuel. And sticking with its zero-waste goals, it donates the small amount of unusable, low-quality grease to the plants, which convert it into methane, which in turn powers these facilities.

Eric Bowen, chair of the city’s Biodiesel Access Task Force, shares Ving’s sentiment that "not all biodiesel is created equal," he told us. The task force is working with the Board of Supervisors to expand the local sources of biodiesel when the fuel contract expires in 18 months and to look into building a production facility in the city, where none currently exist.

The United States Department of Energy estimates that biodiesel contains roughly 8 percent less energy per gallon than petroleum diesel, although that translates into only about a 1 percent difference in mileage and performance.

Bowen said using biodiesel is a win-win situation since it acts as a natural solvent to clean fuel filters. And "the improved lubricity extends the vehicle life," he said. But before they use biodiesel for the first time, diesel tanks must be cleaned out, which the Fire Department found costs $2,000 to $3,000 per tank.

SFGreasecycle also complements the city’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. "The goal is not just to make San Francisco sustainable," Ving told us, "but to develop a program that can be implemented by other municipalities."

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Counseling torture


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Ruth Fallenbaum, a private psychologist based in Berkeley, decided to withhold her annual dues to the American Psychological Association this year. She told us her "gut reaction" was to withhold support from the 148,000-member organization because it allows — and even advocates — the participation of its members in coercive prisoner interrogations at CIA-run sites like Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

While the American Medical Association, the World Medical Association, and the American Psychiatric Association have banned doctors and psychiatrists from participating in these interrogations, many American Psychological Association members argue that psychologists can help ensure subjects are treated in an ethical and humane manner. Others — like Fallenbaum and members of the group she helped form, Psychologists for an Ethical APA — feel that an "ethical interrogation" is an oxymoron.

At the APA’s 115th annual conference, held at San Francisco’s Moscone Center on Aug. 17 to 20, Fallenbaum and many other psychologists and activists spoke — and rallied at the Yerba Buena Gardens — in favor of a rule that would have banned psychologists from engaging in military interrogations at US military prisons "in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights."

The moratorium they advocated — which only recently made it onto the APA’s agenda — was overwhelmingly voted down Aug. 19 at the APA Council meeting after an hour of public comment that was mostly in support of the moratorium. A competing motion that reaffirmed the organization’s position against torture "and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment" was unequivocally passed, leaving a schism between the organization and the rejected resolution’s supporters.

For the latter, concerns remain about what role — if any — psychologists should play in detention centers, which are notorious for human rights violations that are tantamount to torture. Can these health professionals, abiding by the medical field’s basic tenet of "do no harm," retain their integrity in such lawless centers?

According to the APA, the new resolution frames a context for interrogations that is free of fear tactics and actually prevents abuse. Psychologists conducting interrogations can assist in "rapport building with the detainees rather than abuse," Rhea Farberman, the organization’s spokesperson, told the Guardian.

In its approved resolution, the APA for the first time lays out 14 forms of inhumane treatment that it opposes. The list includes mock executions, water boarding, sexual humiliation, isolation, exploitation of phobias, and induced hypothermia — all of which have reportedly been employed by American interrogators. In May the Department of Defense released a previously declassified report detailing the Army’s use of psychological techniques on Guantánamo Bay detainees in 2002.

The approved APA resolution also calls on the US government to reject acts of torture and limits the psychologist’s role to providing therapeutic benefits, ideally keeping the centers in compliance with international human rights law.

As US Army Col. Larry James, who serves as a psychologist at Guantánamo Bay, told the crowd before the vote, "If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die."

But that point simply reinforced the concerns many have about sanctioning torture. "If psychologists have to be there so detainees don’t get killed, those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing is to leave," Laurie Wagner, a psychologist from Texas, said at the meeting, eliciting cheers from many audience members.

Another debate raged over the APA’s Ethics Code 1.02, which says that psychologists — when in conflict with their own ethics and the law — can choose to abide by the governing authority. Fallenbaum and other psychologists we interviewed felt that the code has an eerie resemblance to pre–<\d>Geneva Convention sentiments of crimes committed on the basis of "just following orders." But the APA states that the code, which was last modified in 2000, was originally intended to settle domestic debates, namely whether or not a psychologist should have sex with a client.

The approved torture resolution includes loopholes, according to Dr. Neil Altman, a former member of the APA Council who proposed and drafted the defeated moratorium. For example, it could still allow sleep deprivation prior to interrogations as a way to soften prisoners up. And its reference to "significant harm" is one Altman finds ambiguous. "It still leaves wiggle room," he told us.

Stephen Behnke, the APA’s ethics director, remains adamant that psychologists play a key role in a safe and sound interrogation process, something that might not occur if they are not present. "Some people say that a psychologist’s role should be picking up the pieces [of trauma]. Some say it should be preventing it," Behnke told us. The resolution "was a very clear affirmation that we support both roles."

Bruce Crow, head of the Behavioral Medical Department at the Brooke Army Medical Institute in Texas, assigns psychologists to detainee centers, although he was undecided about their participation. "I don’t have an answer about whether they should or shouldn’t be there," he told us. Nonetheless, the newly passed resolution "will provide better guidelines for psychologists assigned to detention centers."

On July 20, President George W. Bush issued an executive order to relaunch a coercive interrogation program at CIA "black sites." Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, said psychologically manipulative techniques — subject to medical oversight — will be part of the program.

Taking this recent history into account, the conference hosted eight workshops — before and after the votes on the APA resolution and Altman’s counteramendment — with a theme of "Ethics and Interrogations: Confronting the Challenge."

A few hours after the torture measure was defeated, many of the workshop participants gathered for two hours of heated discussion at an ethics town hall. When media outlets videotaping the event were asked to leave by APA officials after a 10-minute time limit, an outcry for "more transparent practices" resonated throughout the room, and the journalists were allowed to stay for the remainder of the session.

Another moratorium could take more than two to three years to get on the APA’s agenda, according to Altman. But Dr. Steven Reiser, a senior faculty member in the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University and the founder of Psychologists for an Ethical APA, remains hopeful.

"We have to stand up for human rights," Reiser told us after the town hall meeting. "If we can’t stand up to risks, then we’re colluding with the forces that [deny] human rights."<\!s>*

Green City: The last hour


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GREEN CITY For sisters Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, the last possible moment to lessen humanity’s impact on the environment — the 11th hour, from which the new documentary they cowrote and codirected aptly takes its name — has come upon us. But unlike other doom-and-gloom envirodocs that engulf viewers with guilt about how we are tearing apart our only planet, this movie is supposed to demonstrate that it’s not too late to shift old habits.

The 11th Hour "really helps you understand what’s happening," Conners Petersen told the Guardian about the Warner Brothers Independent release, which opens in theaters Aug. 17. The movie places the often oxymoronic combination of pragmatism and idealism hand in hand: "You feel a better sense of control in that way," she says.

Conners Petersen and Conners spent three years conducting lengthy interviews with 71 top thinkers and activists, ranging from physicist Stephen Hawking to Paul Hawken, the Marin author of The Ecology of Commerce (Collins, 1994). In their film, they juxtapose 91 minutes of the ecoexperts’ wisest words with quick-paced, music video–<\d>style montages of both environmental destruction and at least partially counteracting ideas and innovations like biomimicry.

And unlike 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, this film — narrated and produced by seasoned ecoactivist Leonardo DiCaprio — spends only about seven minutes covering global warming. "Our film contextualizes global warming as being part of a larger problem," Conners says.

The codirectors emphasize this holistic, all-part-of-a-larger-puzzle approach, which they say the mass media seldom takes when examining any environmental problem.

The environment "isn’t a single-article issue," Conners says. "When Leo’s on camera, he says it’s a convergence of crises. It’s all of it together that’s making it a tipping point. And all of it includes our behavior."

It’s our habits of "disconnect, denial, and laziness," she adds, that keep people from bothering to examine — or change — their impact on the Earth. "It’s like you’re sick with a disease with a known cure, and the medicine’s right there, and you look at it and say, ‘I’m not taking that.’<\!s>"

Environmental action, they say, does not necessarily have to extend to planting trees in Kenya, as Nobel Peace Prize winner and 11th Hour interview subject Wangari Maathai did through the Green Belt movement, or running a scientific radio series, as did interviewee David Suzuki. It’s about being aware of organic peaches that are shipped to the supermarket from Chile and drinking water that may not be from the finest geyser.

"Once you start connecting the detergent under your sink to a dead zone, you start seeing the world as a whole, and your relationship with this planet and life on it will deepen," Conners Petersen says.

The sisters created the Web site 11thhouraction.com to allow individuals and communities to discuss ways to bring the film’s broad-scale ideas and innovations to the local level, whether those efforts involve sharing the most energy-efficient household appliances (compact fluorescent light bulbs, anyone?) or putting solar panels on a high school.

Conners Petersen stresses her "Why wait for the federal government to take action?" mentality by pointing out that nearly 600 mayors in the United States have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol without permission from President George W. Bush.

"If you fight against these things that are so big and immovable, you’ll give up," Conners says. "So if you start locally, [ask] what’s the position of your city council person and the mayor?"

The sisters are no amateurs on the environmental-media scene. Conners Petersen is the founder and codirector of the Tree Media Group and executive editor of Global Viewpoint. They’ve produced two documentaries — Global Warming (2001) and Water Planet (2004) — for DiCaprio’s Web site, and Conners will soon be directing her first narrative feature, Earthquake Weather.

The 11th Hour used 150 hours of stock footage, more than any other documentary in history. The lofty quotes that didn’t make it into the film have found a home on YouTube and the movie’s official Web site, wip.warnerbros.com/11thhour.

"Even though there’s a lot of information, it’s an emotional film," Conners says. "Rather than just telling you information that you intellectually take into the world, I feel like the film is done in such a way that you feel the world in a different way."<\!s>*

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Who’s behind the wheel?


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In 1997, Dirk, a taxi driver of 20 years, was stabbed in the neck by a hitchhiker he picked up after his last shift. Ten years later, blind and brain damaged because of the loss of blood, he still receives income of roughly $1,800 a month from his taxi medallion.

Under city law, he’s supposed to be driving.

Medallions are among the most prized — and disputed — permits in town. The city owns all 1,381 of the medallions, which allow the holders to operate taxis. But under a 1978 law known as Proposition K, only active drivers — later defined as people who put in an annual minimum of 800 hours behind the wheel — are eligible to hold the permits.

The medallion holders have a lucrative deal: when they aren’t driving, they can lease out the permits to other drivers. And since a lot of cabs are on the road 24 hours a day 365 days a year, those lease fees can add up.

Not surprisingly, there’s been some abuse over the years. You get a permit by putting your name on a list and waiting as long as 15 years. Some people who haven’t driven in years — people who don’t even live in the area — have risen to the top of the list, seized medallions, and pocketed the cash, hoping nobody would notice.

Recently, though, the city’s Taxicab Commission has been cracking down — and that has put people like Dirk in limbo and raised a series of political and legal questions that go to the heart of the city’s cab-permit system:

Does a disabled driver have a right to keep his or her medallion? Is it cruel to simply yank the permit — and the income — from somebody who may have been injured in the line of work? Or is allowing nondrivers to keep their medallions unfair to the thousands of working cabbies who are paying $91.50 a shift to lease a permitted cab and waiting in line for a permit to open up?

What right should someone who gets a valuable city permit, at no cost, have to keep using that permit to earn income when he or she no longer meets the permit requirements?

Taxicab Commission executive director Heidi Machen says the answers are straightforward. "Permit holders who are not meeting their requirements are abusing a public permit," she told the Guardian. "Proposition K was never set up as a retirement plan."

Joe Breall and Elliot Myles disagree — and they’re taking the issue to court in a case that could have lasting implications for the city’s taxicab industry, medallion holders, and other drivers.

The two Bay Area lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against the Taxicab Commission on June 25 on behalf of an estimated 150 disabled drivers who hold taxi medallions in the city. They argue that the driving requirement violates the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

"These are long-term drivers who have a disability that simply does not allow them to drive now," said Breall, who represents National Cab Co.

One of the case’s two named plaintiffs, William Slone, is a medallion holder with a lung disease that requires him to be hooked up to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. The other, Michael Merrithew, has a physical disability so severe that he cannot operate his taxi.

Machen has hired two investigators to crack down on medallion holders who are not fulfilling their requirements — whether a scofflaw is a healthy 30-year-old woman living in Hawaii but reaping her medallion’s profits or an elderly man who must use a wheelchair but is still using the medallion as his source of income.

"The ADA does not require a public agency to waive an essential eligibility requirement for a government program or benefit," Machen wrote in a memo dated Feb. 16, 2006.

The Taxicab Commission isn’t just yanking permits from anyone who gets hurt. Under its current policy, temporarily disabled medallion holders can apply to take one year off every five years and receive a 120-day driving exemption in each of the three years following that disability leave.

But the lawsuit argues that this policy "effectively sanctions all taxicab permit/medallion holders with disabilities other than temporary illness that prevent or substantially limit their ability to drive taxi cabs personally."

The lawsuit argues that disabled permit holders, under the ADA, should be relieved of the full-time driving requirement until their disabilities are medically resolved. In the case of some drivers, that could effectively give them use of city-owned medallions free, for life.


Prop. K was written by recently retired San Mateo Superior Court judge Quentin Kopp, who was then a city supervisor. Kopp told us that permits were being bought and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and working drivers couldn’t afford them. The system, which is fairly unusual, was designed to ensure that cabbies — not investors, corporations, or speculators — got the benefits of the city-owned permits.

So Prop. K required that a permit be returned to city and passed on to the next person on the long waiting list if the holder stops driving. Other large cities, such as New York, still maintain a system in which permits may be auctioned off instead of being publicly owned.

The 941 post–<\d>Prop. K medallion holders, Machen said, can receive $1,800 to $3,000 a month for leasing their permits. There are roughly 6,000 taxi drivers in the city; a full-time cab driver makes about $24,000 a year, but those full-timers with permits can add another $20,000 or more to their income by leasing.

"It’s a city permit. If someone stops using it, it reverts to the city," Kopp told us. "There’s no provision for a grace period or something of that sort. Seven times voters rejected efforts to appeal or change it."

In fact, in 2003 voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would have allowed disabled drivers to keep their permits.

Elliott Myles of Oakland’s Myles Law Firm, which handles disability cases, told us that Prop. K is "irrelevant."

"The obligation to modify or waive comes from the ADA, a federal law binding on the commission," he wrote in an e-mail.

Although Kopp says Prop. K was intended to ensure that only active drivers get permits, the 800-hours-a-year rule isn’t in the law. Specific driving rules were added to the city’s Police Code in 1988.

And enforcement of the law has changed in the past few years. When the Taxicab Commission revoked the medallion of disabled driver Querida Mia Rivera in 2003, the decision was overturned by the Board of Appeals on the grounds that it violated the rights of Rivera — who had driven for 35 years before needing a wheelchair and becoming legally blind — under the ADA.

In response to the reversal, then-director Naomi Little implemented a policy to accommodate both temporarily and permanently disabled medallion holders, which paralleled the city’s catastrophic-injury program. This meant the modification or waiver of the 800 hours was overseen by the Department of Public Health.

"A disabled permit holder may apply for a waiver or reduction of the driving requirement, and the waiver or reduction, in appropriate cases, may be renewed on a yearly basis," Little wrote in a memorandum to Sup. Jake McGoldrick on July 30, 2003.

But in February 2006 the Taxicab Commission adopted Resolution 2006-28, which returned the city to the policy of strictly following the letter of Prop. K (although the panel allows temporary reprieves for people who are injured but could return to driving).

Michael Kwok, a former commission staffer who oversaw disability requests, said such a policy allows the permit waiting line to move faster.

Allowing a permanently disabled person to retain his or her permit is "not fair to the public," said Kwok, who uses a wheelchair. "It’s case by case."

The result is an enforcement process that can be tricky, to say the least.

On Aug. 17, 2004, for example, a physician wrote to the commission arguing that a disabled driver who was "suffering from failing eyesight and dizziness" and occasional arthritis in his hands should be taken off the road. "Please release him from taxi driving effective immediately for public safety," the doctor wrote. "He is advised not to drive a taxi as soon as possible."

Commission staffer Tristan Bettencourt, who was overseeing ADA compliance at the time, responded by reducing the driver’s yearly driving requirement to 400 hours, or 78 four-hour shifts, over the next year.

That could have left an unsafe driver on the road, Myles said.

"I find this reprehensible," he told us. "In most medical-injury suits, evidence of medical condition can only be given by qualified health care professionals."

Bettencourt, who left his job last year, said the Taxicab Commission shouldn’t be deciding whether someone is fit to drive or not. "We didn’t give out driver’s licenses," he told us. "If you hold a driver’s license, someone from the Department of Motor Vehicles has certified you."

According to Jan Mendoza, a public information officer at the DMV, a license needs to be renewed every five years — a process that can take place online if a person has a clean record. People over the age of 70, however, have to visit the office in person to take both a vision and a driving test.

Taxi drivers should not have any guarantee of lifetime entitlement, Bettencourt said. He added that the lack of a safety net for people who lose their means of employment is not something a San Francisco taxi regulator can solve; it’s a national problem.


Thomas George-Williams, who chairs the United Taxicab Workers, looks at the issue from the perspective of drivers who don’t have permits — the ones he considers second-class citizens in a two-tier system.

All San Francisco cab drivers are effectively independent contractors who are responsible for their own disability and retirement funds. And the drivers who don’t have permits get no benefits from the system at all.

Medallion holders "use the income of their medallions for disability insurance," George-Williams told us. "We need an exit strategy for all drivers, including medallion holders, and we don’t have that."

Charles Rathbone, a driver for 30 years and a medallion holder for 10, points to the harsh truth: there’s a key difference between the two cabbie classifications. "For drivers without medallions, there’s nothing to revoke," he told us.

Rathbone, a member of the Medallion Holders Association, spoke at the Taxicab Commission meeting July 13 to lay out two steps he felt the city should take before revoking a permit. He asked for two weeks’ advance warning and an appeals process.

"When I become disabled, I don’t want my only exit strategy to be a kick in the ass from the taxi commission," Rathbone later told us.

His speech was spurred by the June suicide of Lindsey Welcome, a 61-year-old medallion holder of 10 years who had not driven for seven of those years due to severe muscular dystrophy. Welcome’s medallion, which she leased out through Luxor Cabs, was scheduled to be revoked at the Taxicab Commission’s June 26 meeting.

"Her medallion was her only means of support," Kathleen Young, Welcome’s friend of 30 years, told us.

Rathbone feels many disabled medallion holders hide their disabilities for fear of the consequences, endangering themselves and the public.

One of the more severe recent taxi incidents happened March 26, 2003, when a 68-year-old permit holder crashed into a Market Street ATM, badly injuring a pedestrian and immobilizing two others.

"Too many people are driving when they shouldn’t be," said Bettina Cohen, Rathbone’s wife and editor of the MHA newsletter, which publicized the pending disability lawsuit on its front page last month.

Allowing disabled drivers to keep their permits may have its own downside: Carl Macmurdo, president of the MHA, acknowledged that the long waiting line for medallions means people will acquire them later in life and so will often be able to fully enjoy them for only a short time.

"[The city’s] giving permits to 70-year-olds and then taking them back," Macmurdo, who waited 13 years to get his permit, said.

Myles shared similar sentiments. "Every permit holder, just like every person, runs the risk of disability," he told us. "This question [of the disabled holding on to their permits] affects not only every current permit holder but every driver who is waiting in line to get a permit in the future."<\!s>*

Green City: Winds of change


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GREEN CITY Atop Bernal Heights, winds speed at 25 mph, enough to prematurely slam doors, disperse heat, and power Todd Pelman’s Roscoe Street house with 100 watts of electricity at any given moment.

The 34-year-old engineer has pioneered the city’s first permitted micro–wind project, a six-foot-tall cylindrical turbine that currently sits on his roof and sends juice into the energy grid, offsetting some of his dependence on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Now his company, Blue Green Pacific, is working to put the turbines on the market in the next year.

"It’s aesthetically not going to be disruptive in an urban environment," Pelman told the Guardian, referring to the generator, which resembles the double helix of a DNA strand when it spins.

It is microprojects like this that could help support the Community Choice Aggregation program passed by the Board of Supervisors last month, which aims to have the city partner with its residents to generate a greener power portfolio over the next 10 years.

Bernal Heights Sup. Tom Ammiano, who codrafted a plan for CCA with Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, considers Pelman’s project a grassroots step away from PG&E, which he regards as a "wolf in sheep’s clothing."

"When people see how fruitful and utilitarian this is, we’ll wind up calling the shots," Ammiano told us. He amended the planning code for Bernal Heights to permit structures to reach more than 30 feet high, thus allowing the current and future use of wind turbines in his district.

Pelman’s turbine will generate between 300 and 600 kilowatt hours of energy per year, or about 10 percent of a typical home’s energy needs, he told us. His vertical-axis turbine is a natural propeller system that spins on its axis — a contrast from the windmill-style horizontal-axis turbines characteristic of rural areas. It’s made of steel, aluminum, and plastic and contains no sharp blades that might endanger birds.

Urban wind, though plentiful, has not been widely used, mostly due to aesthetics and the space constraints of turbines, according to Johanna Partin, the Renewable Energy Program manager of the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

"The micro– and small urban wind market is still in the early stages of development," Partin said, pointing out that Chicago, the notorious Windy City, only recently started a residential permitting process.

Pelman’s turbine became the first in the city to receive a residential permit for use last Oct. 5 after numerous bureaucratic back-and-forths with the Planning Department.

His rooftop turbine captures wind energy coming from the coast and going east and sends it to an inverter in his garage that converts it to usable energy, which then travels into an electrical panel.

"Think of the turbine as the heart of the system and the inverter as the brain of the system," Pelman said.

While Pelman’s turbine may catch people’s eyes, he claims it does not do the same to birds. "It coexists very peacefully with the pigeons and the hawks," he said, mentioning a couple of Bernal Heights’ bird species.

He is working with the Audubon Society to make sure he can live up to his assertion. Due to the turbine’s opaque appearance, no birds have attempted to fly through and meet their doom — a problem frequently noted with the large, horizontal-axis turbines at the Altamont Pass Wind Farm.

A one-turbine system will cost around $5,000, though Pelman estimates that rebates will reduce the price by $1,500. It’s an "emotional purchase," he said, that will at least partially satisfy a green conscience.

Chris Beaudoin, one of Pelman’s first customers, decided to make wind energy his green cause. His Castro home of 20 years — located on what he calls "consistently windy" Kite Hill — is one of the 10 sites where Blue Green Pacific will initiate beta testing in the next six to 12 months.

As a flight attendant whose job has opened his eyes to locations where governments are stepping up to the plate in renewable-resource use, Beaudoin realized that "we can either bitch about [the lack of renewable resources] or politically agitate for it."

Beaudoin takes the ominous signs of global warming as a reason to act fast in every plausible way that he can. As he told us, "I think the main motivation is that we have to be ready for what’s going on down the road." *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

Smoke and mirrors


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Compassion and Care Center employee and longtime medical marijuana activist Wayne Justmann proudly displays a framed "keep up the good work" letter from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–San Francisco) in the second-story medical cannabis dispensary in San Francisco.

"Patients can sit and relax and get away from the problems of the world," Justmann told the Guardian in describing this half pharmacy, half community center, which features AIDS information brochures, a DSL Internet connection, the makings for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and marijuana priced at $18 for an eighth of an ounce.

The CCC, which has been open both legally and illegally since 1992, is one of the numerous medical cannabis dispensaries that are having a hard time getting through the city’s onerous approval process. Under guidelines that the Board of Supervisors approved and the mayor signed in November 2005, all of the dispensaries have until July 1 to get the required permits, but none have successfully done so.

The supervisors recently voted to hold off enforcement for the dispensaries that have already applied for permits, which 26 of the 31 or so clubs had done at press time. Pending legislation by Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier would set a new deadline of Jan. 1, 2008, while also effecting procedural changes that could make it difficult for many facilities to ever get permits. She is proposing more stringent disability access requirements and wants to give the Mayor’s Office more control over which clubs must abide by them.

Justmann and many others in the medical marijuana community interviewed by us see the pending legislation as a mixed bag. It would remove the police inspection from an approval process that now requires clubs to deal with six city departments, easing some concerns of proprietors in this quasi-legal business. Yet the legislation would also require all clubs to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act’s standards for new construction, which could prove logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive for most dispensaries, which are in older buildings. For example, the CCC would need to build an elevator in the aging building where it rents space.

Alioto-Pier told us the amendment — which will be heard by the Planning Commission on July 12 and the board thereafter — is necessary to place medical cannabis dispensaries on par with other medical facilities. "Specifically because they are medical, the board felt it’s important for MCDs to be accessible," she told us. "It’s what I think should have been across the city."

Under the amendment, dispensaries would have to ensure that their bathrooms, hallways, and front doors were wide enough for wheelchair access and that they had limited use–limited access elevators, which would disqualify vertical or inclined platform lifts. While dispensaries like ACT UP’s could aim to spend "tens of thousands of dollars" to meet the standards, co-owner Andrea Lindsay told us, others wouldn’t be able to comply, such as those that couldn’t afford the expense or whose landlords wouldn’t allow extensive remodeling jobs.

The CCC is accessible only by stairs and does not have the money or permission to do the work that the amendment would require. "Still, we provide the necessary services to the patient," Justmann said. He also cited the financial gamble in spending large sums on a business that — unlike other health care facilities — always stands the risk of being shut down by the federal government.

Stephanie (whom we agreed to identify only by her first name), an HIV-positive patient of the CCC for the past three years, told us the new accessibility standards could make affordable marijuana less accessible. "The places that will be able to be kept open will be price gougers," she said. "I won’t be able to afford it."

Some MCDs unable to meet the new standards could apply to the Mayor’s Office on Disability for waivers, giving Mayor Gavin Newsom — who has publicly said there should be fewer MCDs in town — more authority over medical marijuana. That arrangement would be a change from the procedure for other projects, which must submit waiver requests to the Access Appeals Commission, which is part of the Department of Building Inspection.

Kris Hermes of Oakland’s Americans for Safe Access expressed his skepticism about the switch. "The main concern of the people is that the MOD will have the ultimate discretion," he told us. But Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who sponsored the Medical Cannabis Act in 2005, seems to be supporting the Alioto-Pier legislation. "It’s important that the MCDs are consistent with other health care facilities and businesses," he told us. "We want to do everything in our power to make this not so cost prohibitive."

No dispensaries have acquired a permit yet, although five now have "provisional permits." Many MCDs in the waiting line cite red tape and already stringent requirements as barring them from recognition as official businesses. Clubs must pay $6,691 for a permit and cannot generate "excessive profit" when in business.

"I don’t know what we need to do next," said Lindsay, who paid ACT UP’s fees six months ago. "The city’s new to the process. We’re new to the process. It’s frustrating on both sides."

For Kevin Reed, owner of the Green Cross Dispensary, meeting the new standards would be a hard task to accomplish in the next six months. As he told us, "You’d pretty much have to knock down a building and rebuild it."*

Cab it forward


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Eight San Francisco cabbies fed up with their money-devouring gas guzzlers have founded a taxi company that is friendly to the environment and to workers.

Green Cab hit the streets April 25, flaunting its ideology with bright paint jobs. The driver-owned cooperative has about 14 drivers and three hybrid vehicles, and it plans to purchase two more cars next month.

"We’re the only cab company in San Francisco where every driver is going to have an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process," cofounder Mark Gruberg, a taxi driver of 20 years, said. "We’re driver owned and driver operated."

The business is blazing a trail that others may soon follow if Mayor Gavin Newsom realizes the goal he announced last October of having all SF taxis be clean and green by 2011. On June 12 the San Francisco Taxicab Commission will discuss ways of meeting this goal of, in a sense, transitioning the city’s cabs from yellow to green — or at least greenish. Of the 1,351 taxis in 34 fleets that operate in the city, there are 140 Crown Victorias that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is made mostly from the greenhouse gas methane, and 40 hybrids, most of which are Ford SUVs. By October of this year, another 25 alternative-fuel or hybrid taxis are expected to be on the streets.

Heidi Machen, executive director of the Taxicab Commission, told us that taxis are required to be replaced after they’ve clocked 350,000 miles. On April 24 the commission decided to hold off on a policy that, she said, "would have restricted any replacement vehicles to be hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles."

A key reason the policy was not approved, Machen said, was concern that the replacement alternative-fuel vehicles would be mostly those that run on CNG, which burns more cleanly than gasoline but still produces greenhouse gases and gives vehicles worse fuel efficiency than hybrids have. "[CNG] is an improvement, but only an improvement over something terrible to start with," Gruberg said.

Hybrids, unlike purely gas-powered vehicles, have engines that switch to electric power when the cars are stationary due to, for instance, traffic jams or stoplights. According to Gruberg, hybrids get about 40 miles to the gallon for city driving — a drastic improvement over the 12 mpg of standard Crown Victorias. Hybrids emit 13 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every 30 miles they drive, compared with the 40 pounds that Crown Victorias produce.

So, besides hybrids, what’s the next efficient upgrade to the Green Cab fleet: Hydrogen? Electric? Biodiesel? "We’re open to anything that’s going to have beneficial effects to the environment," Gruberg said, adding that the company’s always looking for more ideas — and envirofriendly car donations.

Joe Mirabile, another Green Cab cofounder, emphasized the urgency of the company’s role in fighting or at least lessening the adverse effects of global warming.

"We have to move fast," Mirabile said. "Hybrids aren’t going to do everything, but they’re one small piece of the puzzle."

At its next meeting the Taxicab Commission will discuss possible monetary incentives, such as a higher gate fee, to make it easier for cab companies to purchase green vehicles. Newsom press secretary Nathan Ballard also told us that grant money is the key to putting more Priuses on the street.

"The Mayor has made a commitment to seek additional grant funding at the federal, state and regional levels to help taxi companies finance the more expensive vehicles," Ballard wrote in response to Guardian questions.

But even if Newsom can’t get those grants or otherwise fails to meet his goal, at least San Franciscans have Green Cab, which Gruberg said has been getting 50 to 60 customers per day and lots of goodwill from passersby. "People will wave and honk in the street," Gruberg said. "They’ll come up to the window and say, ‘How can I support you?’ A lot of drivers are asking if they can work for the company. Why wouldn’t they? Instead of paying $40 to $50 a day for gas, they can be paying $10 to $15." Machen likewise expressed her enthusiasm for the growing fleet.

"[Green Cab] is a business model," she said. "They show the direction the industry is going and the direction San Francisco is going." *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.