Trump administration challenges California for 'failure' to address human health

The Trump administration issued a warning Thursday to California leaders that the state is "failing to meet its obligations” on sewage and water pollution.

A Sept. 26 letter from 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 to California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin Christopher NewsomPG&E announces .5B settlement for Northern California wildfires Newsom jokes after Harris drops 2020 bid ahead of his Iowa campaign events for her: 'I want a reimbursement!' Feinstein endorses Christy Smith for Katie Hill's former House seat MORE (D) outlines what the EPA calls “significant public health concerns” and “deficiencies” in California’s air and water quality.

The letter, in particular, focuses on the state’s homelessness issues in Los Angeles and San Francisco, citing articles on human feces on streets and warning of potential water quality concerns.

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“The EPA is concerned about the potential water quality impacts from pathogens and other contaminants from untreated human waste entering nearby waters. 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,” the letter reads.

The effort is the latest in a series of multipronged blows from the Trump administration to California focused on flipping the script on the state's environmental leadership.

It's the second warning sent this week from EPA to California criticizing the state's pollution. On Tuesday the agency sent a letter to California leaders threatening to withhold federal highway funds to the state over its air quality. California's unique geography for decades has left the state grappling with some of the nation's worst air pollution.

“There’s a common theme in the news coming out of this White House this week," said Nathan Click, a spokesman for Newsom, on Thursday's EPA letter.

"The President is abusing the powers of the presidency and weaponizing government to attack his political opponents. This is not about clean air, clean water or helping our state with homelessness. This is political retribution against California, plain and simple.”

Thursday's letter formalizes a promise from President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE made last week that officials were also looking into concerns over the state's water quality due to its homeless population.

“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 aboard Air Force One last week. “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.”

“It’s a terrible situation — that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” he continued. “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.”

The warning came as Trump was touring the Golden State and the same day he announced the EPA had finalized plans to revoke California’s tailpipe emissions waiver, which allowed the state to adopt more stringent car pollution standards than mandated by the federal government.

The administration now argues California must adopt the same vehicle emissions standards determined by Trump’s EPA, which critics argue will allow for higher rates of air pollution.

California sued the Trump administration over the revoke of the waiver last Friday.

Asked if the EPA's letter Thursday came at the behest of the White House, Wheeler said the issue of homeless human waste was very concerning to the president.

"I've talked to the president he's very concerned about what the homeless issue is in California and how that's impacting the water and the water supplies. And the waste that went in particularly, I believe in LA," Wheeler told reporters at an event Thursday morning.

"I told him what we're already doing. And that we're already working on this."

EPA’s Thursday letter though falls short of Trump’s promise of a violation citation. Instead it outlines areas it believes California is failing when it comes to water quality.

The four-page letter focuses largely on San Francisco’s sewer system, saying the city must invest in modernizing its system and criticizes the state’s environmental agency for allowing the city to discharge “more than one billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean on an annual basis.”

The EPA said their preliminary review of the issue “suggests the need for more formal in depth EPA oversight.”

Wheeler told reporters Thursday that the sewer system and homeless waste issues outlined in EPA's letter "predated" conversations he's had with Trump and began in March. He wouldn't go into specifics.

Wheeler last week told reporters that the EPA had previously 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.

A senior EPA official on a background call with reporters Thursday would not address whether EPA was looking into other cities or states with similar sewer system setups. The official said Thursday's letter was a culmination of a number of issues flagged with the state's implementation of the Safe Drinking Water and Clean Water Acts. The official said "multiple programs with multiple problems were being raised at the same time, and that triggered concern from the administrator."

Asked if the letter was a result of a political battle between the Trump administration and California, the official said the letter speaks for itself.

Rebecca Beitsch contributed