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EPA tells Calif. it’s failing to clean up air and water; state sees political retaliation by Trump

A city worker power-washed the sidewalk near a tent city along Division Street in San Francisco. Eric Risberg/Associated Press/File 2016/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, pressing the president’s complaints about homelessness in California, demanded on Thursday that the state improve the way it deals with human waste, arsenic, and lead in water as it escalated the administration’s war with the country’s most populous state.

In a letter to Governor Gavin C. Newsom of California, Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, accused the state of “deficiencies that have led to significant public health concerns” and issued a veiled threat that federal funding to the state could be at risk.

It is the latest in a series of aggressive actions the Trump administration has taken against California since the state surprised the EPA by signing a deal with four automakers that opposed a federal plan to roll back a national vehicle tailpipe pollution standard. President Trump has personally intervened to add urban California’s problem with homelessness to his litany of complaints.

“California needs to fulfill its obligation to protect its water bodies and, more importantly, public health, and it should take this letter as notice that EPA is going to insist that it meets its environmental obligations,” Wheeler said in a statement Thursday.


“If California does not step up to its delegated responsibilities, then EPA will be forced to take action,” Wheeler added.

His letter made explicit reference to the “growing homelessness crisis developing in major California cities” — an issue that has captivated the president.

California has sparred with Trump since the earliest days of the administration. But analysts said the newest skirmish is significant because it shows Trump’s willingness to use obscure levers of policy to punish states that oppose him.

It comes days after Wheeler warned the administration would withhold federal highway funds from California if it did not address a lengthy backlog of state-level pollution plans. Earlier this month, Trump said the administration would revoke the state’s legal authority to set its own regulations on planet-warming emissions from automobile tailpipes.


Newsom’s office hit back, saying the EPA’s action was of a piece with the Ukraine scandal fueling impeachment talk and engulfing the White House.

“There’s a common theme in the news coming out of this White House this week. 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,” Nathan Click, a spokesman for Newsom, said in a statement.

The Trump administration also has taken aim at California in other ways, attacking the state for its handling of the homeless problem and threatening to cut off critical federal wildfire aid.

The EPA letter lays out a multitude of accusations and says the state’s lack of response to its homeless crisis “prompted EPA to review other programs.” It cites numerous pollution discharges into public water systems. While the letter does not explicitly threaten to take funding away from California, it notes that California has received $1.16 billion in federal water treatment funds over the past five years.

Wheeler cited press reports that human feces from homeless people in Los Angeles and San Francisco is increasingly common. “The EPA is concerned about the potential water quality impacts from pathogens and other contaminants from untreated human waste entering nearby waters.”


The letter goes on to cite numerous other problems, including exceeded arsenic and lead levels, and gave the state 30 days to deliver a “remedial plan.”

California has waged its end of the war just as fiercely. The state has 30 environmental lawsuits pending against the administration, most in an effort to stop the rollbacks of climate change regulations enacted under the Obama administration.

Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator appointed by President Barack Obama, called the new environmental accusations against California “ridiculous” and said states like Texas and Louisiana have far more problems with levels of lead and arsenic in water that exceed federal standards. The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comparable data.

“I’m not going to say that enforcement isn’t a problem, but there are other states that are far worse than California,” Enck said. “This an obvious attempt at political intimidation.”

She said the compilation of data about California’s compliance would have involved a large amount of work on the part of EPA staff.

“They apparently have a lot of free time because they are no longer enforcing federal environmental laws,” she said.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Water Policy Center of the Public Policy Institute of California, said the EPA’s accusations are not even accurate. When it comes to the issue of homelessness and human waste, Mount said, major California cities collect and treat all runoff. The same goes for the sewage and stormwater that the EPA complained is discharged into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.


“The impression is that they are discharging raw sewage into the bay. That’s not true. It’s treated,” Mount said. He said California’s water quality has been making steady improvements over the past two decades because of state investments.

Mandy Gunasekara, a former policy adviser in the EPA in the Trump administration, defended the letter, saying California had “failed its citizens in the most basic role of any state, keeping them healthy and safe.” She said if California would not fix its problems, Trump would “step in.”