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Cross-Border Sewage Spills Are an Emergency – It’s Time for the County to Treat Them Like One

Signs warn of dangerous sewage contamination on a hiking trail near the Tijuana River. / Image via Shutterstock

We all know what rolls downhill and smells bad. Nowhere is it more true than in the Tijuana River Valley in southern San Diego County, where for years toxic cross-border sewage spills have created the biggest ongoing water pollution and environmental justice crisis in the United States. While some progress has been made in recent negotiations with Mexico to fund solutions, it could take years to realize significant improvements.

The magnitude of the problem is shocking. Every year hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic sewage, heavy metals, herbicides, pesticides, arsenic, cyanide, trash and other debris flow across the border and pollute San Diego County’s land and water. As a result, the beach in Imperial Beach is closed a third of the year. Children can’t swim in South Bay beaches. South County’s economy is damaged and its reputation tarnished. Navy SEALs, Border Patrol agents, even migrants, all get exposed to dangerous contamination and get sick as a result.

The San Diego region, and the South Bay in particular, is disgusted by the lack of progress on stemming the sewage flows. Enough is enough. Yet while other local governments like the city of Imperial Beach and the Port of San Diego have stepped up efforts to tackle the problem, even suing the federal government for its inaction, county government has largely stood on the sidelines of this important fight.

It’s time for San Diego County government to step up and join the fight to clean up this environmental and public health disaster. There are plenty of ways for the county to do more.

First, the county must declare a state of emergency. Despite fed-up residents’ repeated requests for such a declaration over the course of many years, the county has refused to take this action. Doing so is absolutely critical. By declaring a state of emergency, the county can access state response and recovery funding, cut red tape to build protective infrastructure faster and even invoke emergency powers that allow for swift, dramatic action on public health. Millions of gallons of toxic sewage flowing into our water is an emergency – let’s start treating it like one.

The county should also join the lawsuit against the Trump administration that Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and the Port of San Diego recently filed to create pressure on the federal government to take action. The lawsuit is bringing pressure on the federal government to act, but adding the county’s considerable weight would help our fight. Federal courts have a way of getting people’s attention and forcing action.

That’s not the only way the county could compel the federal government to do more. The county should send all investigation and cleanup costs to the federal government for reimbursement. Contamination on county property originates from the federal government’s discharge of transboundary waste through its facilities. If the federal government refuses to reimburse the county for these costs voluntarily, the county may recover them in court, including through an action under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which empowers local governments to recover clean-up costs for environmental crises in which the federal government is responsible.

Then there are the things separate from the federal government that the county could do on its own: It has already identified approximately 20 projects that will dramatically increase capacity to capture, divert, treat and remediate cross-border pollution spills. While some of the projects, like the major expansion of the existing sewage treatment facility, can only be implemented on federal land, others can begin on county land right now. With approximately $700 million of unrestricted reserves in the bank, the county has no excuse to sit idly by. It should begin the design, environmental review, investigation and clean-up work it has already identified.

Finally, easily and inexpensively, the county should expand protective signage throughout the Tijuana River Valley warning residents and visitors of the contamination that is present during transboundary flows. We’ve all seen the signs at the beach (Keep Out!), but they’re hardly anywhere else.  Just recently, I saw over 20 bicyclists wading through a flooded intersection – none of them knew they were walking through mud and water contaminated with some of the nastiest, most dangerous toxics known to man.

Come on, San Diego County. South Bay needs you to do more. It’s time for county government to get in the fight to protect South Bay’s water and health.

Rafael Castellanos is an attorney, port commissioner and candidate for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in District 1.