Emergency Renewed for Border Sewage Spill

SAN DIEGO (CN) – The San Diego City Council voted Tuesday to keep a state of emergency in place for raw sewage from Mexico that has been polluting U.S. waters, particularly since a massive sewage spill in February.

Councilman David Alvarez said at the Monday council meeting before the Tuesday vote that he wants to create a policy or revised state of emergency “that makes more sense of what’s happening down there.”

“It really was devastating, it’s the largest in the county’s history,” Alvarez said of the February sewage spill in the Tijuana River Valley on both sides of the border.

The spill – the result of a break in major sewer infrastructure during maintenance work in Tijuana – has been blamed for killing birds and seals and contaminating south San Diego beaches up to Coronado, where Navy SEALs train.

Sewage poured into the Tijuana River and into the Pacific Ocean for 17 days in February, causing beach closures.

San Diego has continuously declared a state of emergency since the early 1990’s for Mexican sewage runoff and spills into waters on both sides of the border. By declaring a state of emergency, the city can seek federal funding and support to clean up the sewage.

City officials did not immediately respond to phone and email requests from Courthouse News to clarify if the city has ever sought additional funding to deal with the continuing problem.

Last year, city officials asked whether the City Council should continue the state of emergency, as sewage treatment in Tijuana has improved significantly since the original state of emergency was declared in 1993 after millions of gallons of raw sewage flowed into waterways on both sides of the border.

Assistant City Attorney Tom Zeleny told council members in December last year that sewage flows freely only when it rains or there are breaks in the treatment system, which was the case with the latest spill.

The council voted has continued to declare a state of emergency on a monthly basis.

San Diego’s congressmen have gotten involved, hoping to get to the bottom of why and how hundreds of gallons of sewage were dumped into coastal waters last month.

U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, told reporters Monday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believes 230 million gallons of raw sewage have contaminated coastal waters, up from the initial figure of 143 million gallons.

Peters and Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, wrote a letter last week to the EPA asking it and the State Department to investigate the latest spill.

Some believe the contamination may have continued into March.

A drone video of March 1 showed brown water spilling out of runoff from the Tijuana River Valley and into a network of rivers connected to the ocean, suggesting the contamination may have continued past Feb. 23, when officials on both side of the border said the spill ended.

Mexican agencies have been criticized by their U.S. counterparts for failing to give timely warning of the spill.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said he sent an email on Feb. 15 to the International Boundary and Water Commission inquiring about a strong sewage smell in the ocean. The commission, which is tasked with overseeing water issues on both sides of the border, did not reply until the spill was declared over on Feb. 23.

A binational investigation of the spill is expected to be completed by commissioners from the International Boundary and Water Commission within 30 days.

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