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Trump administration slaps SF with violation over sewers

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The mayor denies charge that city dumps raw sewage into the ocean

Old drains on a beach seawall.
These seawall drains do not connect directly to the sewers, despite what the EPA seems to think.
Via Shutterstock

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) followed through on threats to cite San Francisco over violating the federal Clean Water Act, alleging that the city dumps raw and partially-treated sewage into the ocean.

EPA Regional Administrator Mike Stoker sent a letter, dated October 2, to SF General Manager Harlan Kelly, which said that the city does not “properly operate and maintain the city’s sewage collection and treatment facilities.” He accused SF of allowing 1.5 billion gallons in “sewer discharges” onto beaches and recreation areas.

In response to Stoker, Mayor London Breed said that “no debris flow out into the bay or the ocean,” emphasizing that discharges into the waters happen from SF’s treatment plants and not from the sewers themselves.

The EPA admin called city records “materials incomplete” and suggested that the problem may be worse than his letter alleges. Stoker warns that “penalties, fines, or other appropriate injunctive relief” may result if the city doesn’t respond.

In September, Donald Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that San Francisco was “in serious violation” of environmental regulations, citing a belief that discarded hypodermic needles pollute the ocean. One week later, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom that cited “human waste from homeless populations” as a supposed source of water pollution.

Wheeler also took issue with San Francisco’s sewers—saying that they were full of feces and needles pouring into the ocean—and now Stoker has pivoted to that allegation. Stoker did not make any reference to homelessness in his communique.

State Sen. Scott Wiener called the notice a “fraudulent political attack” and derided the administration’s own environmental record.

One detail Stoker referenced that is true is “instances of sewage flowing into the streets and entering people’s homes,” which does sometimes happen when sewer pipes flood or break. In 2016, the EPA investigated complaints about frequent sewer flooding in Mission Terrace.

That same year, Scientific American reported that climate change-related storms may cause more frequent sewer leaks in U.S. cities, particularly those with combined stormwater and sewage systems like San Francisco.

The SF Public Utilities Commission estimates that city plants decontaminate roughly 40 billion gallons of stormwater and other wastewater annually.