Audit Alleges US Corporations Stealing Water, Contributing To Tijuana Sewage Problem
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / July 8, 2020
An independent audit of Baja California’s water agency has found that many international companies with operations in Baja California have paid for only a fraction of the water they have used for years and have dumped waste without approval into the overburdened Tijuana sewage system, while water agency officials looked the other way.
Speaker 1: 00:00 There's a new wrinkle in the decades. Old story of sewage from Tijuana, contaminating cities and beaches and San Diego, South Bay, an independent audit of Baha's water agency has found that many international corporations in Baja have not paid their full water bills for years and have dumped sewage into the overburden Tijuana system while utility officials look the other way, the alleged fraud between the water agency and corporations like Walmart and Coca Cola would have deprived. He want to have millions to fix it. So each system, while adding industrial runoff to the problem journey may have San Diego union Tribune, reporter, Wendy fry, and Wendy. Welcome to the program. Hi, good morning. Thanks for having me now, the utility is part of the state water agency in Baja. What's the magnitude of the fraud being alleged. They're still conducting the audit, but they have estimated that they have missed out on approximately 49 point $4 million in water fees during the last five years, which is the most that they're allowed to go back retroactively and try to collect, and how many corporations are involved more than 450.
Speaker 1: 01:16 And you know, some of them are smaller companies that are our cross border companies are us companies, but they're just on the smaller side. And then there's these very big corporations that are recognizable to everyone like Coca Cola and home Depot and Samsung. Now, what did the audit find out about how this scheme worked? So the auditor says that these companies would basically work with the state water agency, employees to hook up water to their site, to their facility, um, without it being detected or without the full amount of water that they were using, being detected. And then to also cover up that they were doing that they would also install LANDESK Stein drainage or plumbing of systems to drain the wastewater away from their site so that it wouldn't be detected how much they were discharging either. Some of the, as you say, big names involved in this, I had a rather complicated systems.
Speaker 1: 02:19 Apparently you write Coca Cola connected to water in the parking lot. How did that work? Yeah, that is what the auditor is saying. And he even shows video of when they go to do the inspection at the site and how they kind of had to look around and then find this clandestine connection. There's also another big company, that's a industrial developer. So they develop sites that the macular daughter, companies come in and use and they're accused of, um, even going to the trouble of enlisting the help of a nearby church that was across the street and they dug the pipes and the drain and the system underneath the ground. And then through the, of this church too, to avoid detection is what the auditor is alleging. And how little have some of these companies been paying for water? So Coca Cola, according to the auditor has only been paying the state of Baja, California, five liters of water per second.
Speaker 1: 03:18 So it's the amount that one single person living in a very small house or like a one room apartment would use typically is what the water investigators say. And apparently Hyundai hasn't paid any water bill, right? They went back trying to find when they connect to the water, the water discharge rights, all these documents that should be somehow in the system. And they could not find anything for Hyundai, although they do have running water at their site obviously, and drainage at their site. So a have not been able to figure out how that happens, but that is what prompted the governor to say that he believes obviously they would have had to have been working with the state agency back when they set up their systems for this to have gone undetected for all these years. What are the repercussions for the water agency officials allegedly involved in this?
Speaker 1: 04:12 So about 80 have either been suspended. I think about 40, about half of that have actually been terminated. Um, and there are all varying, I guess, stages of their internal investigations with what happened. They're going back through the accounts who had, what account, who was entering, what into the system at what time and all that stuff. And having some of the people that were charged with going out and investigating exactly this type of behavior are now no longer working in those roles. And I suppose the suspicion is that these officials were taking bribes from these companies. Is that right? Yeah. Although there hasn't been anything that proves that, that any money exchanged hands specifically from one specific person from one specific company, it's the question that the governor and the state officials are raising is, you know, why, why would they be allowing all these systems to fail all over the city, all the pipes to collapse when they could be collecting this money?
Speaker 1: 05:13 Um, so that's sort of the question and they're still investigating. Now. What's been the response from Coca Cola and the other big corporations involved. So, so far I have not heard much from any corporations specifically to us. However, they have been responding to state investigators. They have been trying to work with the state water agency to sort this out, to figure out these bills. And one of the things that they've said over and over again is, you know, we paid the bill that came to us. You know, we, when the bill came, we paid it. And so that's, that's something that's sort of still being sorted out as who, who had, what role I'm a Coca Cola. It says they actually have their own wastewater treatment system. They're on their site. Um, they're battler in Baja, California. They say that they're recycling their own water and that they have federal rights to do that.
Speaker 1: 06:02 So, and that's another thing that, uh, the role of the federal water agency, they kind of go is, um, still sort of undefined. Like it's just not clear in the law. And that's something that some of the state legislators are talking about trying to more clearly define what the role of the federal water agency is an oversight of all of this. Well, apparently Baha's governor has vowed to recoup some of this lost money. What's been his reaction to the scandal. He has been bowing as you know, to stop the sewage from coming across the border into Imperial beach and back, I think sometime in June, he said before the end of this month, we're not going to be spilling another drop of water over, onto the beach of an Imperial beach. And when he, when he had his swearing in ceremony, his inauguration to take office as governor, he said, it's going to be six months and there will be no more sewage spilled into Imperial beach.
Speaker 1: 06:57 And so this we're coming up on that six months right now, and obviously June has passed now. So he's promising that this is the way he's going to resolve the sewage situation at the border. And he's been very adamant about he's going to collect the money from these companies. There, there have been some, some, some news articles in Spanish language media in Tijuana where some of these companies or representatives, people who say the representatives of the company have been talking a name, but they're saying that they feel like they're being extorted by the governor. That he's just sort of looking for a way to finance this project or to finance, stopping the flow of sewage across the border. Obviously that's sort of a scandal that's playing out in the local media, but so far they have not put their name to and their company's name to what they're saying specifically, what kind of connection is being made between this Baja water scandal and the ongoing effort to stop the flow of sewage from Tijuana into San Diego.
Speaker 1: 07:59 The governor is saying, and the state officials that are, are in his cabinet and his administration are saying, if they collected this money from these big corporations, we're actually, you know, discharging a lot more water than, than, than the normal users. They would have the money to pay for this upgrades, the infrastructure. And it wouldn't stress the system so much because we would know how much sewage is coming in, that they need to treat. And how much to divert. I've been speaking with San Diego union Tribune, reporter, Wendy fry, Wendy. Thank you. Thank you, Maureen.