BUELLTON, Calif. - John De Friel, the owner and CEO of Central Coast Agriculture, illegally ran highly-polluting diesel generators as a primary source of power at both of his cannabis operations on Santa Rosa Road west of Buellton, beginning as far back as February, 2020, the county Air Pollution Control District has found.
Fourteen diesel generators were powering lights, a greenhouse and dozens of refrigerated shipping containers, many of them for months on end, at De Friel’s 30-acre Central Coast outdoor cannabis operation at 8701 Santa Rosa, district records show. One of the generators ran for 343 days. The property is less than half a mile upwind from a residential neighborhood.
At 5645 Santa Rosa, where Central Coast is growing cannabis on 24 acres, two diesel generators were operating illegally; one of them was in use for more than 301 days, powering the fans and irrigation pumps at a greenhouse.
“These are serious violations with over 65 tons of excess emissions,” Aeron Arlin Genet, the district’s air pollution control officer, told the district board at a May 20 hearing. A list of the violations was made public in the agenda packet.
Buellton Mayor Holly Sierra, a board member, said she was “really disappointed” to hear the news.
“This is one of the reasons why we have so many concerns about cannabis production right outside our city limits,” she said. “We have no control over it, and now we’re not only getting the odors, but now we have diesel excess.”
Central Coast shut down 11 diesel generators in January and early February this year, on the heels of a district inspection in mid-December – but Central Coast employees immediately and illegally installed four more diesel generators in February, district records show. As of March of this year, district officials, five diesel generators were still in operation at Central Coast.
Under state law, it is illegal to use a diesel generator as a primary source of power without a permit from the district. The Santa Barbara County cannabis ordinance goes further: it bans the use of diesel generators as a primary source of power for cannabis operations in all unincorporated areas, except during power outages and other emergencies. De Friel had no state or district permits for his 16 diesel generators.
Diesel exhaust is a human carcinogen. It contains soot, also known as black carbon; nitrogen oxide, a key ingredient of ozone; and numerous cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde. Diesel particulate matter, a toxic air contaminant, is small enough to be inhaled into the lungs. Occupational studies show a link between the exposure to exhaust and deaths from lung cancer.
At the May 20 district board hearing, the vice-chair, county Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who represents the agricultural area around Buellton, recalled that on May 4 the Board of Supervisors had approved a conditional use permit for De Friel’s operation at 8701 Santa Rosa “and praised it as a platinum standard.” (While recognizing De Friel as “a leader and an innovator,” Hartmann abstained in that vote.)
Referring to the long list of diesel exhaust violations at the property, Hartmann asked, “Should we have known? I think we should have … I find that very concerning on the county side.”
Genet told the district board that a “mutual settlement agreement” with Central Coast was under negotiation. The district’s website states that violators who accept district settlement offers will typically pay 10 percent to 25 percent of the maximum penalty allowed under state law. The penalty varies widely, depending on the length of time of the violation and the extent of harm done.
De Friel did not respond to a request for comment this week on the Central Coast violations, and his attorney, Matt Allen, declined to comment. But in a March 11, 2021 letter to the district, Lindsay Cokeley, the Central Coast compliance supervisor, said the company expected operations at 8701 Santa Rosa to be fully connected to the electrical grid by August. Fresh-frozen cannabis is stored in 52 shipping containers there until it can be transported to Lompoc for the manufacture of cannabis oils.
In her letter, Cokeley explained that Central Coast applied for PG&E permits for a “new service upgrade” in 2018 and an “electrical upgrade” for the shipping containers in 2019. But the county, she said, would not allow the electrical upgrade permit to include a connection to the shipping containers until a zoning permit for the overall project had been approved.
“Due to extenuating circumstances related to the issuances of permits with the County of Santa Barbara,” Cokeley wrote, “we are currently unable to remove the two generators located onsite without significant operational and financial impact to our business.”
The district was tipped off about De Friel’s illegal use of generators after county Environmental Health Services conducted a hazardous waste inspection at 8701 Santa Rosa last November. After an inspection of their own, district officials ordered Central Coast to provide usage data, fuel use records and the rental agreements for the diesel engines.
At the district hearing last month, county Supervisor Das Williams of Carpinteria, a chief architect of the cannabis ordinance and a district board member, reminded the board that it was he who came up with the idea of banning the use of diesel engines in cannabis operations in unincorporated areas.
“I just want you to vigorously enforce these,” Williams said, referring to the numerous violations at Central Coast. Cannabis, he said, should be a benefit and “not detract from the air quality of our communities.”
Genet said this week that the district is inspecting all cannabis operations in the county to make sure they are complying with air quality requirements.
Every day, Genet said, 740 tons of pollutants are released into the county’s air; they come from from a host of sources, including cars, trucks, buses, planes, tractors, industrial engines and ships traveling through the Santa Barbara Channel. The county fails to meet the state’s eight-hour standard for ozone, a summertime air pollutant; and the state’s 24-hour standard for particulate matter.
In approving the zoning permit for De Friel’s operations at 8701 Santa Rosa on May 4, the county supervisors commended him for signing off on a comprehensive odor control agreement that the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, a countywide nonprofit group, had been requesting; in return, the coalition agreed not to sue De Friel over the project.
A week later, the county Planning Commission approved a zoning permit for De Friel’s operation at 5645 Santa Rosa, praising him for signing a pesticide spray agreement with a vintner next door. Cannabis that is harvested at that property is transported to 8701 Santa Rosa to be flash-frozen and stored there.
No mention was made of De Friel’s diesel exhaust violations at these hearings or in supporting documents. Last week, Air Pollution Control District officials said they had notified the county Planning Department of the violations in a phone call in January.
The record shows that in early 2019, a district air quality specialist informed county planners that Central Coast’s application for the project at 8701 Santa Rosa was incomplete because it did not include information about “all existing and proposed combustion equipment that will be installed and/or operated” on the property.
More than a year later, Cokeley, the Central Coast compliance supervisor, followed up. In a May 29, 2020 letter to the district, she stated that the project at 8701 Santa Rosa “does not propose to use any combustion equipment as part of the proposed project.” She didn’t mention the diesel generators running full blast there.
Late last month, the coalition filed an appeal with the county Board of Supervisors, asking the board to deny a permit for De Friel’s project at 5645 Santa Rosa, alleging in part that it had undergone “substantial illegal expansion.”
“The gravity of this expansion is multiplied, as this led to the operation of a series of illegal and unpermitted diesel generators on this site and at the associated site at 8701 Santa Rosa Road, where product from this site was transported and processed,” Marc Chytilo, a coalition attorney, wrote. “… The Planning Commission was not informed.”
Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.