San Francisco pushes back as Trump claims city waterways have 'tremendous pollution'

San Francisco pushes back as Trump claims city waterways have 'tremendous pollution'
© Greg Nash

The city of San Francisco is pushing back against claims from the Trump administration that it isn’t doing enough to treat the stormwater it pumps back into its bay.

The city’s actions come as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent the city a notice Wednesday saying it is violating the Clean Water Act because of its discharges.

It’s the second letter in a week where the EPA has referenced the city. EPA head Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Former EPA chief to chair pro-Trump think tank's environmental center Lobbying world MORE listed the city last Thursday when discussing how California is "failing to meet its obligations" on sewage and water pollution.


Wheeler, in a letter to Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomAmerica isn't first — it's far behind — and studies point to Republicans California to replace 'alien' with 'noncitizen,' 'immigrant' in state laws The Memo: Trump's Arizona embarrassment sharpens questions for GOP MORE (D), had specifically cited the homeless as a risk to the water supply, saying cities were not adequately treating the pollution that comes in through its storm drains.

City officials sent a letter Wheeler on Wednesday touting San Francisco's sewer system, and saying that claim is simply not true.

“The city is proud of its combined sewer system, which captures and treats all of the combined sanitary and storm water flow during the Bay Area's wet winters. The combined sewer system ensures the capture of motor oil, pesticides, metals, trash and other street litter that would otherwise flow directly into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean during storms,” the city said.

San Francisco's combined sewer system brings stormwater as well as wastewater from homes and business to one system for treatment. Though such systems can get overwhelmed and overflow during heavy rains, they are credited with capturing pollution that would otherwise flow directly into waterbodies. Many cities that do not have combined systems simply let rainwater flow into nearby waterways untreated.

The EPA’s letter to California last week came shortly after comments from President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE, who has remained particularly focused on the state during the escalating battle between state leaders and the administration.

“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 in September. “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.”

City officials said they wanted to respond to what they called “concerning inaccuracies and mischaracterizations,” arguing the EPA “has been directly and intrinsically involved in the permitting of San Francisco's combined sewer system for decades.” 

The letter goes on to explain in detail how the city treats stormwater before it is released into the San Francisco Bay.

The EPA’s violation notice accused the city of releasing “one and a half billion gallons of combined sewage annually onto beaches and other sensitive areas.”

“EPA expects San Francisco to share its concern for the protection of public health and surface water resources and to address its ongoing Clean Water Act violations with significant and meaningful measures to ensure a prompt return to full compliance,” the agency said in a statement to The Hill.

Water quality experts were also critical of the EPA’s letter to California, saying it lacked any scientific backing for pinning contamination issues on the homeless. 

“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,” Steve Fleischli, senior director of water initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council, previously told The Hill.

“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,” he said.

—Updated at 5:11 p.m.