October 03, 2019

Harris, Feinstein to Inspector General: Investigate White House Role in EPA Attacks on California

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on Thursday called on the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general to investigate whether the White House pressured the agency to abuse its law enforcement authority to single out California and the city of San Francisco.

Last week, EPA Administrator Wheeler sent a letter to Governor Newsom alleging state water quality violations that contradict the agency’s own findings. The letter was sent after President Trump inaccurately claimed that waste and needles from San Francisco’s homeless were flowing into the ocean from storm sewers and the city would soon be given a notice of violation. On Wednesday, the agency issued a formal notice of violation to San Francisco.

“We ask you to investigate why EPA abruptly reversed course in Administrator Wheeler’s letter and alleged water quality violations that are contradicted by the agency’s own reasoned findings in recent permit approvals for San Francisco,” the senators wrote.

The senators also asked for an investigation into “Whether there was any communication between EPA personnel and the White House on the letter, or a concerted effort to bring actions against California.”

Full text of the letter follows:

October 3, 2019

 

The Honorable Charles Sheehan

Acting Inspector General

Environmental Protection Agency

1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20460

 

Dear Acting Inspector General Sheehan,

We write to bring to your attention EPA Administrator Wheeler’s September 26 letter to Governor Newsom alleging water quality violations by California. Prior to the September 26 letter, EPA had been working closely with California on these issues, and had expressed support for the September 11, 2019 permit issued to San Francisco’s Oceanside treatment plant by the Regional Water Quality Board. (See attached San Francisco Water Power and Sewer October 1 letter to EPA Administrator Wheeler at page 3.) We ask you to investigate why EPA abruptly reversed course in Administrator Wheeler’s letter and alleged water quality violations that are contradicted by the agency’s own reasoned findings in recent permit approvals for San Francisco. (See Attachment 1 for allegations in the September 26 letter contradicted by EPA’s own findings.)

EPA’s Clean Water Act enforcement is traditionally characterized by close coordination with the States and careful negotiation with state and local authorities to grant or deny permits for discharge plans for specific contaminants like bacteria. (See Attachment 2 on EPA Guidance for Water Quality Enforcement.) In contrast, based on San Francisco’s conversations with staff at EPA Region 9, the EPA regional staff apparently did not have advance notice or involvement in the September 26 letter from Administrator Wheeler to Governor Newsom.

Administrator Wheeler’s letter was sent just a week after President Trump’s comments that waste from the homeless, including used needles, were flowing into the ocean from San Francisco’s storm sewers. Reportedly, the President stated that “we’re going to be giving San Francisco, they’re in total violation, we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon.”

We ask you to investigate:

  • Whether EPA consulted with any of the staff at EPA Region 9 who were familiar with the agency’s recent permit approvals for San Francisco’s discharges in EPA’s evaluation of any allegation of non-compliance with the Clean Water Act;
  • Whether there was any communication between EPA personnel and the White House on the letter, or a concerted effort to bring actions against California; and
  • Whether any other states have water quality issues similar to those described in the letter, but are not facing any similar enforcement action by EPA. As stated in EPA’s Interim Guidance to Strengthen Performance in the NPDES Program (June 22, 2010), the agency’s goal is “to establish a minimal national consistency by taking actions across the country so that no one state is singled out.”

We thank you for considering this request and helping to ensure that EPA’s important task of enforcing our nation’s water quality laws is properly conducted.

Sincerely,

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