Mexican sewage contaminates beaches across border

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Photo by Victoria Sanchez

Imperial Beach Mayor Dr. Serge Dedina and his son, Israel, became violently ill after they swam in the sewage-infested waters off Imperial Beach. They were plagued by sinus, ear and gastrointestinal infections because Tijuana had been illegally dumping sewage into ocean.

“They’re doing sewage spills and not telling us,” he said. “My son got sick in July and had to get urgent care. He got so sick.”

Dedina filed a lawsuit against the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) as well as the U.S. Federal Government for violations of the Clean Water Act and other federal statutes. Imperial Beach sent a notice of intent to sue Sept. 27, giving the IBWC and federal government 60 days to reply. Dedina said they have received a response from the U.S. Justice Department, but not the one he hoped for.

“The response was basically ‘It’s not our problem,’” said Dedina. “They’re more mad at me for complaining about sewage than they are at fixing the problem.”

Dedina said the City of Imperial Beach will be moving forward with the lawsuit in the next couple of weeks. People who know Dedina well said his action is notable because he has spent most of his life patiently working with Mexican officials and urging Americans to be respectful and not finger point.

Many San Diego residents have fallen ill after the Tijuana CESPT (Comision Estatal De Servicios Publicos De Tijuana) dumped raw sewage in the Playas de Tijuana beach without notifying U.S. officials.

Shorelines along Imperial Beach and Coronado became contaminated while residents swam in an ocean of sewage and toxic waste. Dedina and National City Mayor Ron Morrison both said that Mexican officials denied their responsibility over the sewage spill and claimed it never happened.

According to Morrison, Dedina has requested a federal investigation from the IBWC into the sewage spills that Tijuana has denied. Morrison said it is common for CESPT to dump sewage and toxic waste into border canyons and the Tijuana River only to deny it afterwards.

As political tensions between the United States and Mexico grow, countries have become more disobliging towards the other, making matters of the San Diego and Tijuana pollution more difficult to deal with.

“This needs to be done between our two federal governments,” Morrison said. “Our problem is the strained relationship between the two governments, a lot of unnecessary redirect has been going on.”

More than 250 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Tijuana River on February causing San Diego beaches to close for more than a month. It moved downhill through the border canyons, reaching the beaches of South County. Dedina said there have been over 320 known sewage spills since August of 2015.

The U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program (BWIP) is an EPA program that helps restore sewage infrastructure.

Surfrider policy coordinator Gabriela Torres said the BWIP distributes money to fix sewage infrastructure in Tijuana. Mexico’s government relies on this American money to fix and update the sewers, but if they fail to do so, sewage ends up in the Tijuana River Valley.

“This is a problem that needs to be solved,” Torres said. “There’s a greater benefit to investing and in having to fix it than having sewage continue to enter because it affects all the residents here.”

Surfrider is a local non-profit organization committed to protecting the San Diego County beaches. It is involved in working to fight sea level rise, climate change and pollution. It has recently become involved on the Tijuana and Imperial Beach sewage border issue, advocating to try to stop it once and for all, Torres said.

Surfrider is forming a Blue Water Task Force, a water testing program that would provide an extra day of coverage each week by ensuring that pollution in the water is not hazardous. The IBWC currently provides one day of water testing for contamination in the San Diego county beaches per week. Surfrider officials have decided that one day of testing is not enough when residents are falling victim of U.S. and Mexico government negligence over safe waters.

Surfrider will soon launch a six-week pilot program to train volunteers and gather necessary equipment.
In September Congress voted on H.R. 3345, a bill which could potentially eliminate the BWIP. Congressmen Darell Issa and Duncan Hunter, Republicans who represent inland districts, voted to eliminate BWIP. Without the BWIP, the number of sewage spills would increase, said Torres.

Issa and Hunter earlier voted to have BWIP funds for infrastructure repairs removed. The City of Imperial Beach is currently working on getting those funds back by trying to reach out to other members of the San Diego County congressional delegation.

Securing funding for sewage repairs has been difficult for Imperial Beach and Tijuana without cooperation from their federal governments.

“It just shows how dysfunctional our federal government is on this side of the border,” Dedina said. “More importantly, how unfortunately incompetent and corrupt the people who are running the sewage industry in Tijuana are.”

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  • Roger Kube

    Surfrider is a GLOBAL non-profit organization, not a local one. And Surfrider San Diego Chapter has been working on on this issue for 10 years, not just recently.