Will the EPA fine San Francisco over homelessness?

This was probably the strangest bit of news coming out of President Trump’s fundraising swing through California. On his way out the door, he suggested that the homeless problem in San Francisco was so bad that it was creating an environmental disaster and the Environmental Protection Agency might have to step in and take action. The homeless camps are clearly creating a mess with human waste and used needles from drug addicts littering the streets. But does it add up to a matter the EPA needs to step in on? (NY Times)

President Trump said late Wednesday that his administration would issue a notice of environmental violation against the city of San Francisco because of what he described as its homelessness problem.

Traveling aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington from a three-day trip to California and New Mexico, Mr. Trump told reporters that San Francisco was in “total violation” of environmental rules because of used needles that were ending up in the ocean.

“They’re in total violation — we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon,” the president said, indicating that the city could be put on notice by the Environmental Protection Agency within a week that its homelessness problem was causing environmental damage.

London Breed, the Mayor of San Francisco, is pretty much laughing off this threat of EPA action. She insists that the city’s sewer and water treatment systems are up to the job and no “debris” (presumably including used hypodermic needles) is discharged into the bay or the ocean. And she might be right. After doing some digging around this morning, I’m not seeing any reports of such contamination in the bay or previous complaints of environmental hazards.

They definitely get some plastic refuse, but that’s unlikely to be coming through the sewers. They also get the occasional oil or gas spillage, but that’s coming from shipping traffic, not the water treatment facilities.

I suppose it’s possible that the EPA was already engaged in an investigation of needles in the ocean, but if so I’m not seeing any records of it. And they can’t just lash out and hit San Francisco with a fine unless they can document the contamination. Or if they tried to, they’d probably run into an immediate appeal that would be tied up in the courts for years.

I’m just going on a hunch here, but I think that threat from the President was just a throwaway line allowing him to take another swing at California before leaving. Either that or someone else has looked into this and is giving the President some (probably) bad advice. I’m guessing that Mayor Breed isn’t losing much sleep over it, at least yet.

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