Senators Request Investigation of Trump Administration Role in Slapping SF for Pollution

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Two homeless people sit in the middle of the sidewalk on Market Street in San Francisco on Sept. 6, 2019.  (Matthew Green/KQED)

Update 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct 3: California’s senators want to know whether the Trump administration was involved in slapping San Francisco with an environmental violation.

They are pressing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General to examine if the agency’s decision to cite the city for improperly dumping sewage into the ocean was politically motivated.

In a letter, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris asked the watchdog agency to determine if EPA officials abused their power by reprimanding the city. They are also asking if officials acted in coordination with the White House and without the knowledge of the federal agency’s regional staff.

The request comes just one day after the EPA notified San Francisco in a letter that it had been issued a violation for “failure to properly operate and maintain the City's sewage collection and treatment facilities” and accused the city of creating a public health risk by failing to capture “substantial volumes of raw and partially treated sewage.”

The EPA’s reprimand came after President Donald Trump baselessly accused San Francisco of allowing used needles to wash into the ocean, and promised to cite the city for water pollution.

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The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board issued a permit for the city’s Oceanside treatment plant on September 11, with the support of the EPA’s regional staff, who had been in contact with city officials for months over the facility.

"We ask you to investigate why EPA abruptly reversed course," the senators wrote, categorizing the decision as contradicting the "agency's own reasoned findings in recent permit approvals for San Francisco."

Original 4:55 p.m. Sept. 26: The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to "take action" against California if the state doesn't fix water pollution problems the agency alleges may be caused, in part, by a worsening homeless crisis in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In a strongly worded letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claimed California is falling short on complying with federal environmental laws and asked the governor to provide a detailed plan for fixing the problems within a month.

Wheeler outlined a wide array of alleged deficiencies, including air quality problems and water pollution, and took specific aim at San Francisco. The city is one of the few major metropolitan areas that combine sewage flows and stormwater but haven't reached legal agreements with the EPA to ensure those systems comply with the Clean Water Act, Wheeler said.

Citing press reports, Wheeler claimed "piles of human feces" on sidewalks are becoming "all too common" in San Francisco. The EPA is concerned, Wheeler said, about "pathogens and other contaminants from untreated human waste entering nearby waters" and affecting water quality.

"San Francisco, Los Angeles and the state do not appear to be acting with urgency to mitigate the risks to human health and the environment that may result from the homelessness crisis," Wheeler wrote. "California is responsible for implementing appropriate municipal storm water management and waste treatment requirements as part of its assumed federal program."

The letter comes about a week after President Trump visited the Bay Area and blasted San Francisco's "liberal" policies, which he claimed have exacerbated the region's homelessness crisis. During his trip, Trump threatened EPA action against San Francisco, accusing the city of letting dangerous waste, including needles, drain into the ocean. That claim was refuted by city officials and environmentalists.

Wheeler's letter marks the latest escalation in a series of disputes between California and the federal government over environmental policies. Last week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced he was leading a lawsuit against the Trump Administration over its decision to revoke the Golden State's authority to set its own emission standards for cars and light trucks.

“There’s a common theme in the news coming out of this White House this week. The President is abusing the powers of the presidency and weaponizing government to attack his political opponents," Nathan Click, a spokesman for Gov. Newsom, said in a statement.

"This is not about clean air, clean water or helping our state with homelessness. This is political retribution against California, plain and simple.”

California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld said Wheeler's concerns about homelessness and water quality in San Francisco, specifically, are odd, because the city's system of combined sewage and stormflow actually leads to cleaner water.

"Unlike other places where water goes right from the streets into the bay or into the ocean, San Francisco has a really good system of dealing with cleaning up all the effluence coming off the streets and sidewalks," he said.

Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the treatment of the city's water, agreed. "San Francisco never discharges untreated water into the bay or the ocean."

Wheeler's letter also cited other "health based exeedances," including Los Angeles surpassing its permit limit of a potential carcinogen, the University of California exceeding its limit for copper, and part of Marin County exceeding its limit for cyanide by more than 5,000 percent.

In total, Wheeler wrote, the alleged exceedences, "call into question the state's ability to protect the public and administer its [Safe Drinking Water Act] programs in a manner consistent with federal requirements."

CalEPA's Blumenthal said most of the examples in the letter are "either gross inaccuracies or misrepresentations" about what's actually happening in the state.

“I was just at a meeting yesterday of all 50 environmental directors and secretaries from each of the states and the question was, 'Why didn’t other states get letters?'" he said. "There’s certainly similar environmental issues in all 50 states, and I think everyone acknowledged that.”

Blumenfeld said Wheeler's letter came as a surprise, adding that his agency "never had any phone call from the federal government" about the issues.

"It definitely feels out of the ordinary," he said. "It definitely feels like it isn't being done in a collaborative way to solve a problem, but really to score a political point."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed also characterized the move as a political statement, blasting the Trump administration's claims.

"I’m sick of this President taking swipes at our city for no reason other than politics," she wrote in an email.

"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."

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This story contains reporting from the Associated Press.

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