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The Planet

The Planet
December 1998 Volume 5, Number 10

on the border

Tijuana Trouble

by John Byrne Barry

Imperial Beach south of San Diego was posted "closed" for 70 days this year because of contamination. Worse, these closures are expected to continue, even after a brand spanking new International Water Treatment Plant (IWTP) goes online in the coming months.

That's because the IWTP has consistently failed acute-toxicity tests, and even when it begins piping treated wastewater into the ocean 3 1/2 miles offshore, San Diego Chapter activists fear the outflow will wash back onshore and harm marine life, surfers and fishermen.

The problem, says Lori Saldaņa, former chapter chair, is that the treated water leaving the IWTP - most of which originated in Tijuana, Mexico - is as dirty as the wastewater that enters the Point Loma Treatment Plant, San Diego's main sewage facility.

That's because Mexico doesn't enforce its requirement that industrial wastewater be pretreated. Add to that the household sewage from the estimated 2 million residents of Tijuana and the greater than normal rainfall from El Niņo, and the system becomes easily overwhelmed.

Tijuana has boomed, says Saldaņa, partly as a result of NAFTA. Its industrial sector and population are experiencing explosive growth, but its sewage system and its enforcement of environmental laws have not kept pace.

The Tijuana River, which crosses the border into the United States five miles before it empties into the Pacific, is another culprit. It carries sewage overflows and industrial and agricultural waste from Tijuana.

It wasn't supposed to happen like this.

A decade ago, Congress authorized $239 million for the IWTP. The assumption was that it would include secondary treatment as required by the Clean Water Act. But the money has been spent and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Boundary and Water Commission could not agree on how to proceed.

Saldaņa, Ed Kimura and other chapter activists have been monitoring the sewage plant proposals for years and generating grassroots pressure on the regional water quality control board and the EPA and IBWC. "We generated over 300 comments on the last environmental impact statement, overwhelmingly in favor of secondary treatment," says Saldaņa.

On Oct. 16, the EPA and IBWC finally announced a decision regarding secondary treatment. The plant will use the ponding method supported by the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation.

More public comments, hearings and environmental impact statements lie ahead, however, before the treatment ponds are constructed.

For more information: Contact Lori Saldaņa at

Go on to the next article, "Where Wilderness Meets La Migra"

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