Dumping toxic waste and discharging sewage from a treatment plant in the Tijuana river are allegedly causing serious pollution and health problems in the United States, leading to threats of legal action against the binational agency charged with managing water on the border.
Raw sewage, chemicals and trash discarded in the river in Mexico usually end up at Imperial Beach, California, where the river flows into the Pacific Ocean just north of the border, local citizens claim.
Fifty-nine U.S. border patrol agents have reportedly become ill during the last three months after being exposed to contaminants while working in the vicinity of the border.
One agent suffered serious burns to his feet after chemicals burned through his footwear while Joel Sevilla, a U.S. army veteran turned border agent, said had to give up working on patrols in the area due to crippling headaches.
Others have suffered from gas inhalation, lung damage and infections, said the agents’ union, which is threatening legal action that could result in all 300 border patrol employees stationed at Imperial Beach to leave their posts. That would have implications for national security, union secretary Christopher Harris said.
He claims that without border patrols the area would become a “no-man’s land” open to smuggling operations by Mexican drug cartels.
“I don’t think Mexico is doing this on purpose, but do I think they care? Not a bit,” Harris said, adding that “the U.S. government has to start doing some things to make Mexico care about its actions.”
The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) is receiving most of the blame for the problem although union leaders also extend responsibility to other U.S. government agencies and Congress.
The IBWC has also become the focus of criticism for Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, who says that the commission had made “zero” effort to address the problem.
He said that the city is “fed up” with sewage spills and toxic sludge that is allegedly dumped illegally on the Mexican side of the border before flowing into California. He also said that up to 40 million gallons (just over 150,000 cubic meters) of sewage are discharged daily from the Punta Banderas sewage treatment plant in Tijuana and when there are south winds and swells, it washes up on U.S. beaches.
The city is planning a lawsuit against the IBWC alleging that it has violated the Clean Water Act, and is encouraging other affected cities in the San Diego area to join the legal action.
“We were told on August 4 by highest level American officials that the Mexican federal government has abandoned its effort to support this issue,” Dedina said. “The U.S. government has to step up and help us stop this toxic waste and toxic sewage from coming across the border.”
Dedina also wants the IBWC to direct the North American Development Bank to fund infrastructure improvements in Tijuana, where a massive sewage spill occurred in February. He said that US $200 million recently allocated by the Department of Homeland Security for upgrades to the border wall in the area should also be used to implement further environmental protection measures.
IBWC spokeswoman Sally Spener told Bloomberg BNA that the organization is “taking concrete steps” to address concerns.
They include an investment of US $17 million to expand the pump and diversion system at its South Bay treatment plant, monitor water quality in the Tijuana river, establish binational spill protocols and plan for better monitoring of transnational flows.
However, Dedina and others say that quicker and stronger action is needed to solve the problem.
“Somewhere along the way, the U.S. government has apparently decided that nothing needs to be done. That is unacceptable,” Dedina said. “This is not rocket science . . . . It requires funding, engineering and political will.”
The IBWC is a binational body charged with solving border issues including those related to water in accordance with United States-Mexico treaties.