In the News
By James DeHaven
San Diego officials were informed repeatedly of the dangers of disease-carrying runoff from homeless encampments into area waterways, as far as a decade before the current hepatitis A crisis spurred action.
Typical of the volumes of reports is a 2015 city plan for Mission Bay, which cited hepatitis research in setting priorities for officials regarding environmental quality.
“The issues raised by transient encampments are socio-economic by nature,” the city Transportation and Storm Water report said. “Addressing the sources of homelessness requires coordination with law enforcement, social services, and the legal community. Therefore, it has been designated as an uncontrollable source.”
A U-T Watchdog review of public records shows state water regulators and city officials produced nearly a dozen studies in the decade before this year’s outbreak, reports and policy documents highlighting the link between homeless camps and human waste-tainted water.
By the end of last month, city leaders — faced with a headline-grabbing wave of hepatitis infections that has killed 17 people and sickened 481 others since November — had police sweep away downtown homeless encampments, while sanitation crews power-washed sidewalks with chlorine and bleach.
Some of the same City Council members also led a media-friendly clean-up of hepatitis-ravaged homeless camps along the San Diego River — home to an estimated 300 year-round unsheltered residents, as well as four known hepatitis cases and one death since the outbreak was identified late last year.
Neither Kolb nor a city spokeswoman returned requests for comment on the city’s response to such disclosures.
A July report delivered to the water quality board — which is charged with local enforcement of permits issued under federal clean water regulations — issued another, somewhat more urgent warning about the link between human waste and waterborne illness.
The report, commissioned by city and county officials and meant to determine the cost of various water quality improvement efforts, found undiluted human waste in San Diego waterways was likely to generate high rates of illness among exposed homeless populations.
It said the most cost-effective way to reduce those risks was to “prioritize human sources first.”
Like the 2015 report, it cautioned that efforts to do so “could require coordination among multiple agencies, civil society organizations and other stakeholders.”
David Gibson, executive director of the water quality control board, said local officials were certainly cognizant of the red flags.
If anything, he said, July’s analysis may have underestimated the human cost of waste in San Diego’s waterways.
“This hep A outbreak sadly confirms my fears,” Gibson added. “I do think the report was a big indication of the homeless community as a source (of contaminated water).
“It’s really unfortunate this situation has gotten where it has. … The board’s concern is that we don’t allow the conditions that allowed for this to happen again.”
Gibson said conditions at San Diego area homeless camps arguably raise questions about local officials’ compliance with permits issued under the Clean Water Act, the 1972 law enacted to prevent pollution in U.S. waterways.
He said officials with the Environmental Protection Agency had been called in to aid his agency’s inquiry into those questions.
MaryAnne Pintar, district chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, confirmed the three-term congressman sought EPA intervention in a Sept. 18 letter that urged the agency to take “the immediate steps necessary” to address concerns over the spread of hepatitis through San Diego waterways.
She said Peters, D-San Diego, expected more detail on those efforts by early next week.
“When we followed up yesterday we were told that the EPA’s Water Division is working with (the water quality control board) to develop recommendations that would be included in the response we receive on Tuesday,” Pintar wrote in an email on Thursday. “The congressman would rather have a complete and accurate response, one that includes concrete recommendations, rather than one that is incomplete.
“We look forward to receiving that on Tuesday and sharing it with the city and county.”
Peters sent a similar missive to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 5, asking that agency to evaluate San Diego County’s response to the hepatitis outbreak.
Dr. John Ward, director of the CDC’s viral hepatitis division, replied that he was impressed by the “rapid action” undertaken by county and state health officials to address the crisis.
The city, for its part, has emphasized plans to take on additional river cleanup activities over the coming weeks.
Spokeswoman Christina Di Leva Chadwick wrote in a Sept. 29 news release that the city funds weekly San Diego River inspections and an annual inspection covering the full length of the waterway.
Chadwick said the nonprofit River Park Foundation, a city contractor, has removed more than 66 tons of trash and debris from the river bed so far this year.
She said the city has a similar contract with I Love a Clean San Diego, which conducts 15 river cleanups a year — three of which occurred last year on the San Diego River.
Chadwick did not respond to a request for a copy of those contracts.
July 2006: An investigation report from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control board lists four San Diego-area water bodies — from Loma Alta slough to San Elijo lagoon — that had been polluted by bacteria and did not meet federal water quality standards. The order found homeless encampments may be among the sources of those pollutants.
December 2007: A technical report issued by the water quality board again lists “waste from encampments of homeless persons” among possible contributors to bacteria-impaired bodies of water.
June 2008: A report on water quality at Baby Beach and Shelter Island Shoreline Park notes “wash-off from encampments of homeless persons can potentially contribute elevated bacteria loads to water bodies due to improper disposal of human waste.”
May 2014: A summary report from the water quality control board cites homeless camps on the San Diego River “present the largest challenge for trash abatement for both the municipal storm water committees and Caltrans.”
September 2015: City-hired consultants put out a Mission Bay watershed management plan that classifies homeless camps as an “uncontrollable” source of human waste pollutants in San Diego waterways, explaining that “addressing the sources of homelessness requires coordination with law enforcement, social services, and the legal community.”
July 2017: A city- and county-sponsored cost-benefit analysis encourages focusing on homeless camps and other human waste sources of water pollution, but concludes that ultimately, “peoples’ values and preferences will greatly affect the decisions regarding the ways to make surface waters safe to swim.”