A key federal official said a presidential state of emergency regarding the Tijuana sewage crisis may not be needed despite a chorus of pleas from local politicians and environmental groups to get such a declaration from the White House.
International Boundary and Water Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner on Oct. 31 said a state of emergency from President Joe Biden would likely waive some procurement requirements and environmental processesses.
She said such a declaration may save a few months in the construction process, but she said it’s best for federal officials to go through a competitive bid procedure to stretch dollars that have been allocated.
Giner’s comments came during an Environmental Protection Agency public information meeting. The hour-plus meeting provided historical context on the problem, an update on the excess sewage from Hurricane Hilary, information about sensors that have been installed to test air quality in the Tijuana River Valley and what federal officials have done so far to fix a sewage problem that has existed for roughly 100 years.
Giner’s organization is hosting the next public meeting.
It’s set for 5:30 p.m. in the Winn Room at the Coronado Public Library, 640 Orange Ave., on Nov. 8.
Mexico is ‘delivering on its commitment’
Doug Liden, who monitors border water for the EPA, reported that Mexico is “delivering on its commitment” to repair broken sewage lines.
He said Mexico has committed $45 million of a $144 million pledge on two major projects to alleviate the transboundary flow of sewage. He said the rest of the money will be spent on projects over five years.
The U.S. has committed $330 million on sewage construction projects that include doubling sewage capacity treatment to 50 million gallons a day from Tijuana at the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant; and Biden recently asked Congress for an additional $310 million to fix and enhance the plant.
He said officials hope to select a contractor by the end of the year.
While he complimented Mexico, he noted that it doesn’t matter how much money the U.S. spends on its side of the border unless Mexico fixes its “broken infrastructure.”
Coronado News investigation
The Coronado News earlier this year did a five-part investigative series on the public health crisis of human waste flowing from Tijuana and onto the shorelines of Imperial Beach and Coronado, regularly shuttering beach access.
The sewage also has sickened locals, U.S. Border Patrol agents and Navy SEALs and has befuddled prior U.S. and Mexican administrations whose leaders have failed to keep their promises to stop the transboundary flow of sewage into southern San Diego County, The Coronado News found.
The newspaper also found one of the biggest problems is Tijuana’s major sewage plant in Punta Bandera constantly fails and the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant cannot handle the overflow of waste coming from a city where large pockets of homes have no sewage pipes and some homes share a water hose for drinking water.
Since that series concluded in late March:
- Coronado began working with Imperial Beach, which formally asked the White House for help in May.
- U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla on June 5 traveled to the international wastewater treatment plant to address transborder water pollution in the area.
- Hundreds of Imperial Beach students in June wrote letters to Biden asking for assistance.
- San Diego County Supervisors on June 27 declared a state of emergency regarding the sewage crisis.
- Forty nonprofit organizations across San Diego County sent a letter July 14 to Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Biden urging swift action on the toxic transboundary pollution following through the Tijuana River Watershed and into the Pacific Ocean.
- A bipartisan group of local women formed Stop the Sewage.org and organized beach rallies this summer that included mayors from Coronado and Imperial Beach.
- Stop the Sewage.org partnered with community members and 40 different groups, including environmental groups Emerald Keepers and Surfrider Foundation.
- Newsom in August urged Biden and Congress to release funds for the sewage crisis.
- Community members in the fall wrote Op-Eds in The Coronado News to raise awareness about the crisis.
- Coronado High School students in the fall formed a Stop the Sewage Club to get classmates involved in fighting the sewage problem.
- Mayors of every city in San Diego County in mid-September sent a letter to Newsom calling for him to declare a state of emergency on the Tijuana sewage crisis.
- U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, whose district includes Coronado, and other San Diego County congressional leaders on Oct. 6 requested a detailed breakdown from the State Department about how the treatment plant reached its current deterioration.
Feds: Advocacy paid off
In early October, Newsom said he wasn’t issuing a state of emergency because it cannot accelerate federal work needed on a federal facility.
Giner at the recent public meeting said even if Biden doesn’t declare a federal state of emergency, the White House has taken notice of the community’s calls for action.
She and Martha Guzman, an EPA regional administrator, pointed to the additional $310 million Biden has sought from Congress as evidence their work has paid off.
“Your advocacy has been extraordinary. It resulted in $310 million in the disaster supplemental bill.”–International Boundary and Water Commissioner Maria-Elena Giner.
“Your advocacy has been extraordinary. It resulted in $310 million in the disaster supplemental bill,” Giner said.
Yet, Giner said the current situation is “unacceptable” and she continues to work with Mexican officials to stop the sewage flow.