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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday alleging the state has not addressed water pollution tied to the homelessness crisis in major cities like San Francisco, specifically when the sewer system can overflow during heavy rain and release untreated water into other areas like the San Francisco Bay.
The letter specifically cites a report on NPR last year that cited a local news investigation describing concerns with trash, used needles from drug users and human waste on the streets. The letter also cites at least 23 instances in recent months where water districts in California released water that exceeded the allowed levels of pollutants like copper or cyanide.
“The EPA is aware of the growing homelessness crisis developing in major California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the impact of this crisis on the environment. Indeed, press reports indicate that ‘piles of human feces’ on sidewalks and streets in these cities are becoming all too common,” Wheeler said in the letter.
“The EPA is concerned about the potential water quality impacts from pathogens and other contaminants from untreated human waste entering nearby waters,” the letter added.
Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday morning, but San Francisco Mayor London Breed said she’s “sick” of the president attacking the city for “no reason other than politics.”
“As I’ve said before, there are no needles washing out to the Bay or Ocean from our sewer system, and there is no relationship between homelessness and water quality in San Francisco. It’s just not a real issue. Now, we have been working with the EPA on a number of issues for the past few years, and we have had a good working relationship with them,” Breed said in a statement.
“Then the President comes to California last week and decides he needs to use us for his own political gain and everything changes.”
Breed said infrastructure and homelessness are challenges for the city but that the Trump administration isn’t working with the city to address them.
“In the absence of federal leadership to address real environmental issues affecting climate change, San Francisco will continue our national leadership to advance policies to make our energy 100% renewable, make our buildings greenhouse-gas-free, electrify our transportation sector, and, yes, keep our bay and ocean clean. That’s who we are in San Francisco, and that’s the work we are going to do,” she said in the statement.
The administration and the state have also clashed frequently in court since Trump came into office; the California attorney general says they have filed 60 lawsuits to block decisions under the current administration.
Last Friday, Trump said the EPA would tell San Francisco the city is violating environmental laws by failing to address pollution flowing into the ocean from homeless encampments.
“It’s a terrible situation — that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” he told reporters on Air Force One. “And we’re going to be giving San Francisco, they’re in total violation, we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon.”
“EPA is going to be putting out a notice,” he said. “They’re in serious violation.”
He added, “They have to clean it up. We can’t have our cities going to hell.”
In response to a question about whether the administration was singling out the state for political reasons, a senior EPA official said “the letter speaks for itself” in laying out the agency’s environmental concerns.
Wheeler also told reporters at an unrelated event Thursday morning that he has been looking into the issue of drinking water in California since he was asked about it in a congressional hearing in March and that he has discussed the issue of state oversight of water programs with the White House.
“It is our largest state and they do have very significant environmental problems as a result of being our largest state and they also are capable and well-funded and the expectation is that they should be able to carry out those laws,” the official told reporters.
In 2011, the Obama administration issued a similar letter to the state of Wisconsin raising concerns about the state’s oversight of discharged water that could violate federal clean water rules. An EPA senior official told reporters many water systems around the country have problems with storm-water discharge but that most states will work with EPA to resolve any violations.
Wheeler asked state officials to respond in 30 days outlining how they will address the concerns described in the letter.