Energy & Environment

Water experts tell Trump no, the homeless aren’t hurting California water quality

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The Trump administration tried to pin California’s water woes on the homeless, but water quality experts say there is little connection between homeless camps and water pollution. 

In the latest move in the political battle between President Trump and the nation’s largest blue state, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) criticizing California for “failing to meet its obligations” on sewage and water pollution, blaming homelessness for the contamination.

{mosads}But experts say the EPA was short on scientific backing for its claims.

“No self respecting EPA scientist or regulatory staffer is going to claim there’s a direct connection between the homeless and the issues raised in that letter. It’s a pure political stunt,” said Steve Fleischli, senior director of water initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who knocked the EPA for various proposals to roll back water quality regulations.  

The letter the EPA sent Thursday was the second this week from the agency criticizing the state’s environmental record. The first threatened to withhold highway funds over air pollution.

“The EPA is aware of the growing homelessness crisis developing in major California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the impact of this crisis on the environment,” the letter said, noting reports of “piles of human feces.” 

“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 added.

The letter then goes on to site exceedances in lead, arsenic and copper.

“They’re trying to connect the dots, but there is no connection between the two things. The drinking water issues they cite have nothing to do with homelessness. Homeless people are not contributing arsenic to tap water,” Fleischli said. “It’s completely nonsensical.”

When asked by The Hill to further explain ties between homelessness and the state’s water quality issues, the EPA referred back to earlier statements contained in its letter that blamed California policy choices for the level of homelessness. 

“It was a remarkably silly letter,” said Carl Reeverts, who retired from the EPA in 2014 after serving as deputy director of the drinking water protection division. “It was like a very smart summer intern was given the task to write this letter.”

Reeverts called the exceedances spelled out in the letter “minor” and said California entities were doing their job by monitoring for contaminants and reporting them.

That’s not to say cities don’t have to contend with pollution captured by rainwater.

“You get oil and grease from cars, you get pet waste, human waste if that’s on the street, fertilizer from people’s yards. Those are all the things you get in stormwater,” said Nancy Stoner, president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the former acting assistant administrator for water at the EPA.

Some cities simply allow what is captured in storm drains to flow into rivers, but others, including San Francisco and part of Los Angeles, capture stormwater in combined systems that blend that waste with household sewage.

Those systems can be helpful at removing street pollution when there is little rain, but after a big storm, they can get overwhelmed, leaking the untreated mix.

“To pin that on homelessness is outrageous, absurd, unconscionable and makes no sense because it’s everybody’s sewage together when these systems overflow,” Fleischli said. “Those are bad for water quality.”

Fleischli said some parts of California do have serious water quality issues, as do 17 other states where communities have petitioned the EPA to push local agencies to clean up their water.

Speaking with reporters Thursday, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said it was a question from Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) during a recent hearing that pushed him to look into California’s water quality issues.

Her question related to discolored tap water in parts of Compton, and she asked why the EPA proposed cutting $300 million from a fund used to help states pay for water projects.

“It’s really sad that the administrator is using a legitimate inquiry to back up his politically motivated, opportunistic letter that he sent over to the governor that is politically skewed,” Barragán told The Hill. 

Tags Andrew Wheeler California Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency EPA Gavin Newsom Homelessness

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