OUR VIEW: An EPA complaint about the homeless (vote in poll)

January 8, 2010
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The homeless are harming Mother Earth. That’s the message of a Colorado Springs woman who filed a complain with the Environmental Protection Agency against city government. She blames city officials for failing to prevent or manage pollution caused by those who live in shanties and tents.

Homeless people harm the environment, for sure, and the mega recession has increased their numbers. But the homeless aren’t unique. Each and every living animal, human or otherwise, alters and pollutes the earth.

A bear defecates in the woods. Beavers build dams that cause floods that kill and displace other widlife; they chop down trees that are important to birds. Bird manure makes some places uninhabitable by humans or other creatures. A recent study of E. coli in upper Fountain Creek discovered pigeon droppings as the cause. Termites are among the world’s biggest producers of methane, listed by the EPA as the worst so-called “Greenhouse gas.”

Though homeless people harm the environment, it’s hard to imagine they do so anywhere near as much as people who live in homes. Nearly all people in homes consume fossil fuels or natural gas for heating and cooling. The homeless don’t have heating and air conditioning. Most who live in homes own cars, which burn fossil fuels and pollute the air. Most homeless do not. All people with homes, like the homeless, produce excrement and trash.

Janis Heuberger, a real estate agent who filed the EPA complaint, says the homeless defecate and urinate in and along the creek and strew their garbage about. That’s significantly different than people with homes who use toilets and pay for garbage removal. Her concerns are reasonable, and it’s reasonable for city government to somehow get involved. It’s important to keep our creeks clean.

We cannot, however, blame only the hundreds of people living outside for putting raw feces and urine into local creeks. The hundreds of thousands of other people who live in Colorado Springs have also polluted the creek with excrement, and much more of it than the homeless have.

Most of the time, more than 50 percent of the flow in Fountain Creek is sewage effluent. Colorado Springs Utilities does a great job cleaning the sewage before releasing it, but the system isn’t flawless. When problems occur, they are enormous.

Flooding caused millions of gallons of raw sewage to spill into Fountain Creek in 1999. In 2005, more than 300,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled into the creek. Anyone who lived in a Colorado Springs home, during any major sewage spill, likely put excrement into the creek.

(Please vote in poll to the right. Must vote to see results. Thanks!)

The city utility has spent $130 million in recent years reducing the chance of more excrement spills, but risk remains. Considering the size of past spills — amounting to millions of gallons — it’s hard to believe the homeless pose a threat that’s in the same universe of magnitude.

Though we need not panic about homeless sanitation, it should be addressed in a rational tone. Steve Berry, spokesman for Colorado Springs Utilities, said the enterprise may explore ways to help. The utility gets blamed for Fountain Creek pollution, so it has vested interest in keeping it clean. And it did just spend $130 million to help people with toilets stop polluting the creek with untreated excrement, so why not spend a little helping the homeless? Sure, people with homes pay fees to the utility and the homeless do not. But the homeless pay taxes, when they earn money or spend it. Perhaps they warrant at least a little attention from the city utility. Portable toilets and dumpsters, perhaps?

Individuals should also help out. Donating to the homeless is great, but so is pulling up with a pickup and helping them clean.

The easy solution is a law to ban the homeless, with a no camping ordinance. But that merely pushes the homeless somewhere else — perhaps upstream, where problems will roll down hill.

Individuals and agencies have done a great job helping the homeless of late. We must go one step farther, working together to resolve sanitation problems. It’s up to all of us, including those who live outside, to keep Colorado Springs beautiful and free. — Wayne Laugesen, editorial page editor, for the editorial board.

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Editorial opinions have no connection with The Gazette’s news division, and do not express the views of all Gazette associates.

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