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Border Patrol Wants To Examine Mexican Sewage And How It’s Affecting Agents

Sewage flows through canal from Mexico near San Ysidro, March 28, 2019.

Photo by Matt Hoffman

Above: Sewage flows through canal from Mexico near San Ysidro, March 28, 2019.

There is supposed to be a system in place that diverts sewage near the U.S.-Mexico border to a treatment plant.

"So if it’s coming here then that’s not happening," said U.S. Border Patrol Agent Amber Craig, standing in a channel where sewage is flowing near San Ysidro. "And that shouldn’t happen when it’s not raining."

As one might imagine the untreated sewage has a rotten smell.

"Fecal coliform — basically human waste — very very high levels," Craig said. "One of these days I’m not going to be able to stand it anymore."

Border Patrol officials said people often try illegally crossing into the U.S. where sewage is.

"If there’s water flowing they’re getting in it and it’s a hazard to them and it’s a hazard to the agent that has to apprehend them," she said.

Taking people who were in the sewage into custody could cause the spread of bacteria to others in Border Patrol custody — so, "typically we’ll have to hose them off."

"That’s something that’s new for us. It’s not our area of expertise," Craig said. "As Border Patrol agents, that’s not our job we’re not supposed to be decontamination experts."

The Border Patrol said it pays contractors to try and keep channels with built up sewage and dirt as clear as possible. Contractors use excavators and heavy construction equipment to clear the channels.

"Debris, plastics, trash, sewage — I mean it all comes over the border so it has to be cleaned out," she said. "On a daily basis, somebody is sitting just downwind, upwind of this, 24 hours a day. Here and in other locations so we’re exposed to whatever it is. And we just don’t know what really the long term effects are."

Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioned a study to see what was in some of the sewage coming from Mexico.

"We’re still at the beginning process to try and figure out what is maybe naturally occurring and what is not and what is going to be a hazard for agents working in and around it — and definitely being exposed to it," Craig said.

RELATED: Cross-Border Dialogue Tackles Cross-Border Pollution Issue

There are sewers all along the border where sewage regularly comes into the U.S. from Mexico.

"This has been going on forever. It’s always been an issue," she said.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Amber Craig stands in a canal where sewage flows in from Mexico near San Ysidro, March 28, 2019.

Agents are used to working in and around the sewage.

"We’re just exposed to it and we kind of [say], 'Well it’s our job. It’s what we do,'" Craig said. "And so we haven’t been very good about paying close attention to where we were when our boots melted or where I was when I got that rash."

The Border Patrol is now paying closer attention. The agency is filling out reports when agents get sick to spot trends. The Border Patrol has also invested in protective gear for agents working in the field. That includes things such as seat covers for vehicles, charcoal masks and showers to decontaminate agents.

"That’s all new," she said. "We didn’t really have any of that before and we didn’t really think about it before."

Last month, CBP wrapped up another study looking at the effects of the sewage.

"We know there are things that are hazardous — we just don’t know what exactly they are — how hazardous they are and what do we need to do with to stay away from it to protect ourselves from it. We’ll figure that out hopefully from all the testing," she said.

Craig who has worked in this area for over 20 years said she is encouraged seeing politicians at the federal, state and local level calling for the sewage issue to be fixed.

"I have never felt so positive as I do today that perhaps we might actually make some progress with minimizing these flows from Mexico," she said.

Mexican sewage is not just a problem for San Diego surfers. U.S. Border Patrol agents work where contaminated water pours in from Tijuana.

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