EPA head dodges questions about environmental action against San Francisco

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerEPA to resume contract negotiations with employee union Overnight Energy: Critics call EPA air guidance 'an industry dream' | New Energy secretary says Trump wants to boost coal | EPA looks to speed approval of disputed industry pollution permits Latest EPA guidance weakens air protections in favor of industry, critics say MORE dodged questions about any agency plans to bring enforcement against San Francisco, a day after President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers release defense bill with parental leave-for-Space-Force deal House Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday Houston police chief excoriates McConnell, Cornyn and Cruz on gun violence MORE derided pollution and homelessness in the city and promised a notice “very soon.”

“I’m not going to comment on a potential enforcement action that we may or may not take. It’s inappropriate for me to do so,” Wheeler told reporters following a congressional hearing Thursday.

Flying back from California Wednesday night, Trump said he expected the EPA to slap San Francisco with a violation notice in the coming days related to pollution associated with the city’s homeless population.

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“There’s tremendous pollution being put into the ocean because they’re going through what’s called the storm sewer that’s for rainwater,” Trump said. “And we have tremendous things that we don’t have to discuss pouring into the ocean. You know there are needles, there are other things.”

He continued: “It’s a terrible situation that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. 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.”

Asked what jurisdiction EPA had with San Francisco’s homeless population, Wheeler said any actions that might be taken would involve regulatory authority under the Safe Drinking Water and Clean Water Acts for the disposal of water and waste going into the sewer systems.

He said that last week the EPA had sent a few staff members out to California “to look at some of the issues and the problems,” in various California communities. But he said the agency has not “taken any official steps yet.”

“There are a number of permits involved. We’re taking a look into whether permits were in violation,” he said, adding that the focus was not specifically on San Francisco or California.

“I don’t want to speak with any specificity to any particular city at this point,” Wheeler said. “We don’t look at any one particular city or state.”

Asked why Trump mentioned San Francisco by name, Wheeler said he believed it was because Trump was in California this week. 

At the hearing, Rep. Bill FosterGeorge (Bill) William FosterScientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule Omar knocks Republicans for appearing to bring phones into highly-classified SCIF room Mass shootings have hit 158 House districts so far this year MORE (D-Ill.) asked about the typical operating procedure for when a president requests EPA enforcement actions be taken.

“When the president said it was coming this week, is it routine for you to issue notices of violation, whatever that means, with less than one week of preparatory work?” Foster asked Wheeler.

Wheeler said he didn’t “see” that Trump said it was occurring this week.

“So you are saying there was no preliminary finding ... How was San Francisco chosen?” Foster asked.

Wheeler said he couldn’t comment on his conversations with the president.