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San Diego Leaders Push For Federal Investigation On Cross-Border Sewage Spill

Rain-swollen Tijuana River was the conduit for a massive sewage spill that lasted two weeks, Feb. 27, 2017.
Christopher Maue
Rain-swollen Tijuana River was the conduit for a massive sewage spill that lasted two weeks, Feb. 27, 2017.
San Diego Leaders Push For Federal Investigation On Cross-Border Sewage Spill
San Diego Leaders Push For Federal Investigation On Cross-Border Sewage Spill GUEST:Erik Anderson, reporter, KPBS News

Our top story on midday edition. Politicians civic leaders and environmentalists are asking the public to attend the meeting in Imperial Beach tonight. They are hoping to put pressure on the international boundary and water commission to investigate a massive sewage spill in Mexico into the Tijuana River. An estimated 143 million gallons of sewage was released into the river contaminating the San Diego coastline from South Bay to Coronado. Joining me as KPBS reporter Eric Anderson. Welcome. I pleasure. What do we know about the origins of the sewage spill? From what we can put together according to the international boundary and water commission whose job it is to track these cross-border spells they contacted the Mexican government, heard back from him on February 23 and found out that what had happened is that there was a main sewer line that was having a collector worked on and instead of rounding the sewer around the clock and having the system pick it up apparently they just diverted the sewage flow of this main sewage line into the Tijuana River and the water was running at the time so the water carried it across the border into the United States and then out to the ocean along US coastal waters. How long did it continue? From what the IBWC has said they got there first request for information on February 7. They finally got an answer back after making several requests to the Mexican but -- government on February 23. They think it ran from 6 February until 23 February which is about 17 days. Where did it end up? It ended up in the ocean and there is probably still some of that in the estuary system of the Tijuana River. When it comes across to the United States the water spreads out. There was a lot of rain recently also so the water levels are very high I am sure it spread out and got collected a little bit in the estuary system but a lot of it float out into the ocean. While the spill was going on some South Bay officials came -- became concerned about the order and contamination. What did they say they did? This is nothing new we have dealt with these issues for a long time and we know that there are concerns about swimming in the water off Imperial beach in the wintertime when there are wet weather close but apparently the stench was so bad that people felt like there will be in effect -- being affected healthwise because this smell of sewage was so strong that Mayor inquired about it and wrote an official email to the international boundary and water commission the US federal agency in charge of the cross-border pollution issue and the Mexican officials to ask them if there was a spill in progress because he felt that the sewage smell was just so strong. On 21 February David Alvarez San Diego city councilmember joined him and also contacted federal officials to ask if there have been some sort of a spill or what the situation was and why was there this stench. Of course we heard on the 23rd when the IBWC got word from Mexico and made the news of the spill official and released to local water quality officials here and health department officials and municipalities. Now there are apparently a host of officials calling for an investigation into this incident. Tell us about that. The Imperial beach Mayor one of the first people to raise concern about this particular spill is among those calling for an investigation. The San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez also wants an investigation and I believe there concern lies around the fact that this is something that impacts public health. And uninterrupted flow of effluent into the ocean where people can be exposed creates a public health issue and I think what they are interested in is getting better public notification so they can warm the -- Warren their constituents if there is arrest -- risk. The mayor told us about the message he hopes to send tonight at the international boundary water commission citizen for them. First of all we will set up a response from the IBWC was unacceptable we were only notified after the spill was over and then we will be asking for the IBWC to give us a full report on what happened and why there was no effort to communicate with anyone about this bill when it was happening and number three the most important point is to really advocate for fully supporting the current plan by the state of California and the North American development bank to fix some of the sewage infrastructure needs that are contributing to these sewage flows coming across the border. Dave Gibson executive officer of the regional water control board told the Tribune that the sewage discharge may not have been a mistake by Mexican officials. What is he getting out box I think what he is getting at is that it was not an accident. There was not an incident where a sewage pipe burst or a collector broke down on its own under whatever pressure may have been out there. They do not think that was the case and Mexican authorities have said that is not the case. What they were doing was upgrading a sewage collector and instead of diverting the sewage around the collector and back into their sewage system they just diverted it into the Tijuana River. And that I think is the root of his comments that he does not think it was an accident. And they did not notify anyone of doing that. That's correct. Any idea when it may be safe to go back in the water in South Bay box neck I think you have to be sensible. They test the water frequently so pay attention to the test results. Understand that and wet weather sewage flow and contaminants flow through the River Valley into the ocean regularly so the best way to be prepared for that is to know that they have tested the water and deemed it to be safe but pay attention and you should be safe. South Bay officials are asking people to gather together at the Tijuana estuary meeting room at 5:30 tonight before the IBWC citizens forum begins to formulate questions for the authorities. The citizens forum begins at the same location at 6:30 tonight. I have been speaking with Eric Anderson. Thank you. My pleasure. Among those calling for an investigation into the sewage spill are San Diego city council members. In a letter sent to the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency they are asking the agencies to quote work with affected municipalities in San Diego County to further investigate and commit the appropriate resources to rehabilitate and secure the Tijuana River Valley communities.

San Diego political and environmental leaders are scheduled Thursday to encourage the public to pressure federal officials to investigate a huge sewage spill in Mexico that has fouled beaches and other areas of southern San Diego County.

RELATED: Federal Response To Cross-Border Sewage Spill Questioned

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina and San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez, who represents southern areas of the city, plan to hold a news conference to call attention to the issue.


According to Alvarez's office, more than 143 million gallons of raw sewage flowed from Mexico into the Pacific Ocean, heavily polluting the Tijuana River Valley and nearby beaches.

Letter From Rep. Vargas and Rep. Peters
A letter written to Secretary Tillerson and Administrator Pruitt from Rep. Vargas and Rep. Peters regarding the cross-border sewage spill.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

The stench was widespread and consistently reported with nothing but silence in response from authorities on both sides of the border, putting the health of area residents at risk, his office said. Alvarez heads the City Council's Environment Committee.

RELATED: Imperial Beach Mayor Blasts Reaction To Major Sewage Spill

The news conference is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., before the meeting of the International Boundary and Water Commission's (IBWC) U.S. Section Citizens Forum. The commission implements water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico, and settles disputes that might arise.

One of the items on the agenda is a report on tracking the flow of solid waste across the border.


The IBWC reported that Mexican officials said the discharge resulted from a project to repair a sewer pipe at the confluence of the Alamar and Tijuana rivers, south of the international border. U.S. officials weren't notified about the work, however.

San Diego Congressmen Juan Vargas and Scott Peters wrote a letter to the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency calling for assistance in investigating and providing resources to help rehabilitate areas affected by the spill. In the letter, they stated:

These spills have a deeply adverse impact on the quality of life of constituents in our Districts. The frequency of these incidents have not only affected the health of residents, but also disrupt community engagements that are key to the local tourism economy.