LEJ’s SF EcoCenter Wins EPA Environmental Justice Award

January 28, 2011

The EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park, operated by the Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), is truly a diamond in the rough.

Nestled deep in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood among a tallow rendering plant, a wastewater treatment facility, a concrete plant, and one of the state’s largest Superfund sites, the environmental justice education facility may just be the Bay Area’s most innovative green building.

Solidifying the EcoCenter’s spot as environmental jewel, it was awarded the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 National Achievements in Environmental Justice Award. According to the EPA, the award “recognizes partnerships that address local environmental justice concerns and result in positive environmental and human health benefits in communities.” Only five awards were given out last year.

The location, in one of the more industrial areas of the city, is no accident. “Most environmental education services are in the northern part of San Francisco,” says LEJ’s Tracy Zhu. “We are working to change that.” A native of Bayview Hunters Point herself, Zhu says she’s excited that the EcoCenter (which she now manages) is open for business.

EcoCenter wasterwater treatment
The EcoCenter process all its wastewater, including sewage, on site. Photo courtesy

LEJ addresses the health and environmental needs of Southeast San Francisco, an environmental justice community. “The community here is made up of predominantly low-income people of color who have historically carried the burden of industrial pollution,” Zhu explains. Approximately one-third of the children in Bayview Hunters Point struggle with asthma, testament to the health effects of living next door to Hunters Point Power Plant–the oldest and dirtiest power plant in California until it shut down in 2006 after years of community pressure.

Zhu says LEJ aims to use the EcoCenter to educate the community–with a focus on youth–about ecologically sensible alternatives to the toxic and smelly industry surrounding it. To accomplish this, it hosts an impressive array of groundbreaking environmental technologies:

• With solar panels donated by BP and a system of storage batteries, the center operates completely off the grid. When asked about the heavy wires attached to the walls throughout the building, Zhu says “we left the electrical conduits exposed to highlight the source of our energy. Not just here, but elsewhere where it’s not visible.”

• Black water treatment. All grey- and black-water (raw sewage) is processed on-site using a series of tanks, ultraviolet lights, and a beautiful indoor wetland (complete with tule reeds, fish, and spiders). The processed water is then used to water the center’s native plant landscaping.

• Living roof. Blossoming with native plants and a bird pond, the EcoCenter’s roof cuts down on the need for heating and cooling, reduces heat island effect, provides native wildlife habitat, and feeds the rainwater catchment system.

• Native plant landscaping. Reduces irrigation needs, provides wildlife habitat, and educates visitors about native plant life. The plants are grown by LEJ’s own youth-operated nursery at nearby Candlestick State Park.

Ten years in the making, the EcoCenter was christened on People’s Earth Day (April 18th) 2010 and opened its doors in September.

“It took eight years to raise funds and get permits,” Zhu says, chuckling, “the agencies didn’t know how to permit these technologies.”

Even with permits in place, it took a while for everything to fall into place. “It took many sectors of society to bring this center to Bayview Hunters Point,” says Zhu. “The real success here is that we organized a village to it build. We didn’t have $5 million in the coffers for this.”

So what exactly takes place in this truly ecological building? “We want to make this a hub of activity that brings students, teachers, and community members together to learn about the environment–their environment–and how they can help it,” says Zhu.

The EcoCenter provides a destination for school field trips, teacher training sessions, youth docent programs, and volunteer days (every second Saturday). Since all those programs are provided for free, LEJ is also looking to rent out the space out for events.

In addition, LEJ manages the 23-acre Heron’s Head Park where the EcoCenter sits, one of few open spaces in southeast San Francisco and one of even fewer with access to the water. The park is great for birding, with a short scenic trail and a restored wetland and coastal scrub plants throughout.

“We really want to provide opportunities and resources for young people where they are,” says Zhu, “We don’t think [the kids] should be bussed out to access these.”

If the last few months of 2010–when 1,500 kids visited the center–are any sign, LEJ and the EcoCenter are well on their way to accomplishing their goal.

Heron’s Head Park and the EcoCenter are located at Jennings Street and Cargo Way, two blocks south of Pier 96. Free parking is available at the entrance. To schedule a field trip or sign up for classes, please contact LEJ’s Program Manager Tracy Zhu.

About the Author

R. Adam Chasey is a Bay Nature editorial intern.