Energy & Environment

EPA watchdog may probe agency’s response to California water issues

Greg Nash

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) internal watchdog is weighing a probe into the agency’s actions toward California after President Trump made numerous claims about the state’s water quality.

At issue is what California lawmakers described as “inconsistencies” in how the agency has responded to California water quality issues compared to those in other states, an issue the EPA’s Office of Inspector General said Thursday it may investigate.

A September letter from the EPA focused on the state’s homelessness issues in Los Angeles and San Francisco, citing articles on human feces on streets and warning the state was “failing to meet its obligations” on sewage and water pollution. It followed a letter written just days before threatening to withhold highway funds over the state’s air quality issues. 

“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 the week prior to the letter. “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.”

The agency later reversed course on a permit for a San Francisco’s wastewater treatment center. 

Sens. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, both Democrats of California, said the move stood in contrast to “EPA’s lack of enforcement action against other municipalities with highly similar treatment systems for water quality discharges.”

The inspector general did not commit to an investigation, but told lawmakers it is weighing a project “to review aspects of the EPA’s oversight of state water enforcement that could include California, as well as other states, and are coordinating with the U.S. Government Accountability Office to avoid duplication.”

The EPA said it would not comment on ongoing enforcement actions.

Water quality experts previously told The Hill that Trump’s concerns that the homeless were impacting the state’s water quality were unfounded.

“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, told The Hill shortly after the EPA threatened action against California.

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