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Tijuana Sewage Spill Leaves Lesson For Both Sides Of The Border

Audio

Aired 1/20/11

In recent weeks, more than 31 million gallons of sewage have spilled across Playas de Tijuana, just south of the border from San Diego. The impact is being felt in both countries. But the damaging delay by Mexican authorities before moving to stop the spill could be an opportunity to improve communication on environmental emergencies.

A sign warning people not to swim in Imperial Beach was put up earlier this week, after reports that 31-million-gallons of sewage had spilled just south of the border, in Playas de Tijuana.
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Above: A sign warning people not to swim in Imperial Beach was put up earlier this week, after reports that 31-million-gallons of sewage had spilled just south of the border, in Playas de Tijuana.

— Ben McCue stood feet away from the beach on the United States side, facing a sign that reads "Keep Out, Sewage Contaminated Water." He said Imperial Beach is used to warning signs due to pollution, but the Playas de Tijuana incident -- a massive amount of sewage flowing from a broken pipe -- was more problematic.

"The real issue is the public notification," said McCue, conservation director for local nonprofit, WiLDCOAST. "(We are concerned by) the fact that there were reports from residents that the spill in Tijuana was going on since December 23rd and three weeks passed without the authorities really doing anything. It really took media reports to get them to go into action."

Sewage spills aren't new along San Diego and Tijuana's shared coast. Typically, people on both sides of the border keep an eye on this and inform each other so that measures can be taken to fix broken pipes. But this time, there was a breakdown in communication.

City officials in Tijuana could not be reached for comment. But earlier this week, they issued a warning against swimming at local beaches, saying the contaminated water could cause infections and gastrointestinal problems. The spill was caused by a ruptured sewage pipe.

Margarita Diaz, director of Tijuana non-profit, Proyecto Fronterizo de Educacion Ambiental, said that despite reports, the sewage and water infrastructure in Tijuana is in much better shape than people north of the border think.

A surfer goes into the water at Imperial Beach, despite warnings of a major sewage spill along the coast. The contaminated water can cause infections and gastrointestinal problems.
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Above: A surfer goes into the water at Imperial Beach, despite warnings of a major sewage spill along the coast. The contaminated water can cause infections and gastrointestinal problems.

"The water authorities in Tijuana have invested a lot of money on the remodeling of treatment plants and pipe systems," she says.

And despite the maddening repair delay, both organizations say the incident should open the way to better coordination across the border, and between residents and government officials.

"San Diego's protocol for these types of accidents are an important model for us," says Diaz. "We need to take that protocol and incorporate it into our laws, our culture and our system."

Comments

Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | January 21, 2011 at 8:32 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

You would think this would be a good opportinity to put that cross-border communication into action, especially since the two governors recently met.

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Avatar for user 'SDCyclist'

SDCyclist | January 21, 2011 at 9:45 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

This will sound incredibly cynical but this story was relevant 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, today, and will still be relevant 20 years from now. My point being this issue has existed forever and will never be resolved. Why? Two reasons: Neither side truly cares about the estuary, and, clean up/prevention costs money. Money neither side has. Why should they care and why should they spend money when mother nature will take care of the spill for them for free within a couple of months or years? For year upon year there has been lip service from both sides but NO action. None. I would love KPBS to do a story with a more realistic title like, "US/Mexico Environmental Organizations Give Up on Ages-Old Cross-Border Pollution Problem Forever Because They Honestly Don't Give a Damn." At least that would be honest and close the topic forever. I know that's ridiculous and incredibly cynical but I'm just completely bereft of all hope that anything will ever be done about this.

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