U.S. EPA and California AG Sue San Francisco Over Clean Water Act Violations

golden gate bridge, san francisco

SF reportedly discharges 1.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage yearly into water bodies like creeks, San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Ocean (Credit: Pexels)

by | May 2, 2024

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The Department of Justice, representing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), alongside the Attorney General of California, on behalf of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, has lodged a civil complaint in federal court against the City and County of San Francisco. The complaint highlights alleged Clean Water Act violations spanning the past decade.

Untreated Sewage

At the heart of the complaint are accusations regarding San Francisco’s management of its two combined sewer systems and three sewage treatment plants. The city stands accused of recurrent and widespread failures to operate these facilities in alignment with the Clean Water Act and the stipulations outlined in its permits. Notably, San Francisco allegedly neglected measures to prevent untreated sewage from entering San Francisco Bay, its tributaries, streets, beaches, and other areas posing risks to public health.

Martha Guzman, EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator:

“Protecting San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and public health are paramount concerns for EPA,” remarked. “This complaint underscores our commitment to ensuring San Francisco achieves compliance with the Clean Water Act, thereby safeguarding clean water and local communities.”

Echoing these sentiments, Alexis Strauss, Chair of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, emphasized the urgency of addressing San Francisco’s aging wastewater infrastructure. “Our objective is clear: to mitigate sewage overflows, and institute upgraded wastewater facilities, thereby fostering a healthier Bay and coastline for the benefit of millions of residents and visitors,” stated Strauss.

The complaint, jointly brought by the United States and the San Francisco Water Board, seeks judicial intervention to compel the City of San Francisco to halt further Clean Water Act violations and undertake all necessary actions to ensure future compliance. Of particular concern is San Francisco’s reported discharge of over 1.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage annually since 2016, predominantly from its combined sewer systems, into various water bodies, including creeks, San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. These discharges, often occurring during heavy rainfall when sewage treatment plants reach maximum capacity, pose risks to recreational activities such as swimming, surfing, and fishing.

Monumental Effects

San Francisco’s alleged failure to minimize these discharges or provide adequate disinfection treatment contradicts the state’s designated uses for affected water bodies, imperiling aquatic life and human health. Untreated sewage, laden with pathogens like E. coli, poses severe health risks, particularly to vulnerable demographics such as children, older people, and individuals with compromised immune systems.

Compounding these concerns is the disrepair of San Francisco’s combined sewer systems, exacerbated by the city’s purported negligence in maintenance and operation. The resulting combined sewage discharges pose direct health risks and indicate a failure to adequately notify the public about potential exposure to untreated sewage in recreational areas.

The EPA’s enforcement actions, targeting municipalities nationwide to address similar Clean Water Act violations, reflect a broader commitment to environmental stewardship. Collaboratively with states, cities, and industry bodies, the EPA seeks to develop tools and strategies to facilitate compliance with Clean Water Act requirements and uphold water quality standards.

In California, the State Water Board and its regional counterparts are pivotal in enforcing the Clean Water Act, working with wastewater systems to ensure regulatory adherence and enhance water quality. In 2023 alone, the Water Boards executed 260 wastewater enforcement actions under the Clean Water Act, amounting to over six million dollars in assessed penalties.

San Francisco, one of approximately 750 communities nationwide with combined sewer systems, embarked on efforts to address combined sewer overflows in the 1970s. However, despite completing planned controls over two decades ago, subsequent upgrades have been lacking, rendering existing controls inadequate to meet the requirements stipulated in San Francisco’s Clean Water Act permits.

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