Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Crime & Emergencies
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Published on May 03, 2024
San Francisco Sued for Spewing 1.8 Billion Gallons of Sewage - Per Year - into Bay and StreetsSource: Alfred Twu, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Department of Justice, teaming up with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alongside the California Attorney General, has taken a firm stand against San Francisco, citing a decade of violations under the Clean Water Act. In an aggressive move to safeguard health and aquatic sanctuaries, a civil lawsuit was lodged against the City and County for operating its sewer systems and treatment plants out of step with federal law. Reports indicate that each year since 2016, the city has allowed over 1.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage to spill into natural and urban environments, including the San Francisco Bay, Pacific Ocean, and local streets.

Officials are adamant that this litigation is pivotal to reshaping the future of the city's waste management. "Protecting San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean and public health are critical priorities for EPA, and this complaint is a major step to improve how the San Francisco sewer system is managed," Martha Guzman, EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator, said, according to official statements. Alexis Strauss, Chair of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, echoed the urgency, stating, "San Francisco’s aging wastewater system has exposed the public to risks for too long."

The legal action demands that San Francisco cease further violations and comprehensively undertake all necessary steps to assure future compliance. The city's combined sewer systems, which have not been substantially upgraded for over two decades, collect stormwater and household and industrial wastewater. During periods of excessive rainfall, these systems fail to properly disinfect the overflow, directly leading to the dissemination of potentially hazardous materials and pathogens like E. coli in public and ecologically sensitive areas.

These failures not only breach the Clean Water Act but also fall short of the state's designated uses for these bodies of water, which are intended for recreational activities like swimming and fishing. San Francisco's lax approach has heightened the risks, as the public has often not been properly alerted to the dangers posed by the untreated sewage finding its way into places often frequented by residents and tourists. The exposure is especially severe for at-risk groups such as children, the elderly, and pregnant women. The complaint is expected to force San Francisco's hand to significant revisions and repairs of its sewage infrastructure.

In a broader scope, the crackdown on San Francisco is part of a national effort by the EPA to upgrade outdated sewer infrastructures to comply with the Clean Water Act. Throughout the nation, enforcement actions have been taken to push municipalities toward modernizing their wastewater systems. In California alone, where the State Water Board and nine regional boards are at the front line of administering and enforcing the Clean Water Act, 260 enforcement actions with over six million dollars in penalties were assessed in 2023.