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Trump administration says SF homeless camp feces violates the Clean Water Act

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EPA worries about “untreated human waste entering nearby waters”

A manhole over on a brick street, which reads, “SF SEWER.” Photo via Shutterstock

On Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom accusing the state of failing to abide by federal laws about water pollution. He singled out San Francisco, saying that “piles of human feces” on the streets have contaminated city waters.

The federal warning comes on the heels of President Donald Trump threatening SF with EPA action over SF’s homeless crisis, claiming that the city was “in total violation” of environmental regulations. “We’re going to be giving them a notice very soon,” he said last week. “EPA is going to be putting out a notice.”

While Wheeler did not give notice directly to San Francisco authorities, his letter to Newsom (reproduced in full here by CBS SF) attempts to add some specifics to Trump’s allegations that homeless residents in the city contribute to water pollution.

“Human waste from homeless populations is a recognized source of bacteria in water bodies,” the EPA administrator wrote. He also claimed that the city routinely discharges “more than one billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater into the San Francisco Bay and the ocean.”

In his letter, Wheeler cites a 2014 American Society of Civil Engineers report titled “Pathogens In Urban Stormwater Systems,” which does mention human waste as a local water contaminant. However, this same report also notes more than a dozen other common sources of potential infection, including dogs (which, at approximately 120,000, outnumber San Francisco’s homeless population several times over), wild birds, urban wildlife like raccoons, aging sewers, and illegal dumping.

The bay and the ocean discharge sites to which Wheeler refers are, in fact, San Francisco’s water treatment facilities—one in the Sunset and one in Bayview. SF does have a combined sewage and stormwater system, but according to the SF Public Utilities Commission, these facilities decontaminate an estimated 40 billion gallons of stormwater and other wastewater annually, with a third center in North Point used specifically during storms. Only treated water is sent to the ocean.

Wheeler also writes that “the city allowed raw sewage to back up into homes and businesses” from a lack of sewer maintenance, without referencing any examples. He might be referring to Mission Terrace, where residents often complain about sewer flooding, which can be exacerbated during storms and prompted EPA intervention in 2016. SF voters have approved bonds for sewer maintenance and improvement 15 times since 1908 to help mitigate flooding risks.

Following Wheeler’s accusations, Gov. Newsom accused the White House of “weaponizing our government to attack political opponents” and said that Wheeler was “retaliating” against the state rather than addressing real problems.

Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former head of civil enforcement at EPA, followed suit, saying, “It makes no sense to decide that homeless encampments are a major priority for Clean Water Act enforcement, when EPA has done so little to enforce illegal discharges from much larger sources across the U.S.”

In response to previous White House criticism, Mayor London Breed derided the administration’s own track record on environmental and homeless issues.

“No debris flow out into the bay or the ocean,” Breed told the San Francisco Chronicle. “If the president wants to talk about homelessness, we are committed to working with our state and federal partners on actual solutions.”

We reached out to Breed for comment on Wheeler’s letter.