Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina and City Councilman Mark West said Wednesday they became ill on Oct. 26 and 27 after surfing.
The alleged spill – which Mexican authorities say never occurred – was the latest in a decades-long problem that came to a head in February when 28 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into the Tijuana River and U.S. waters.
The Tijuana River, which flows 120 miles from Mexico’s Sierra Madre to an estuary south of San Diego, was used as a wastewater dump in the past – though its current problems stem from millions of dollars in deferred maintenance of the nearby treatment plant. Despite its well-known sanitation problems and risks to health, it provides habitat for hundreds of species of birds, as a rare water source in the arid region.
Last week’s spill spurred renewed calls from Dedina, other local officials and San Diego congressmen from both parties to improve infrastructure on both sides of the border. An April report from the International Boundary and Water Commission found the problem was exacerbated by Mexican officials who failed to immediately inform U.S. agencies of the contamination.
At a news conference Wednesday, Dedina called it a continuing “cover-up.” He said surfers and residents of Imperial Beach and Playas de Tijuana in Mexico could smell and see sewage in the ocean last Friday.
The mayor said he immediately took steps to contact all authorities on both sides of the border, including the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health. The department investigated, but declined to test the water, saying “it smelled fine,” according to Councilman West.
The mayor said the beach remained open despite reports of people becoming sick on both sides of the border. He said water testing by Tijuana Waterkeeper showed elevated levels of pollution.
San Diego County spokeswoman Jessica Northrup said Department of Environmental Health workers were sent to Imperial Beach and Border Field State Park two times on Friday to investigate. She said the International Boundary and Water Commission told the county there were no reports of sewage spills from Mexico, and county workers did not observe any odors or water discoloration.
“Odors are an indication of a potential water quality impact. Had odors been observed, water quality samples would have been taken,” Northrup said.
But West said he “could taste it in the water and see it on top of the water” and that he and other surfers knew something was wrong since they are “ocean users.” He said the Department of Environmental Health is supposed to test water quality if requested by lifeguards and the Mayor’s Office, but declined to do so last week despite those requests.
“The county has not been doing their job for a long time. They’re part of the problem. They need to be more proactive,” West said.
Dedina said in an interview that there were “multiple failures at every level.” He said the officials tasked with investigating spills and warning residents accepted Mexican authorities’ reports that there was no spill, rather than using the evidence of the stench and people becoming ill to investigate what happened.
“The reporting system is based on people telling the truth, and that’s not happening,” Dedina said.
He said continued sewage spills from Mexico are affecting U.S.-Mexico relations, including renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Last week’s spill, Dedina said, shows that the only recourse for Imperial Beach to sue the federal government — which the city has indicated it plans to do.
Joined by the City of San Diego, Port of San Diego, City of Chula Vista and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, Imperial Beach filed an intent to sue the International Boundary and Water Commission for its failure to block sewage from Tijuana from entering U.S. waters, in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act.
Boundary and Water Commission spokeswoman Lori Kuczmanski said Wednesday that the IBWC contacted Mexican officials about last week’s alleged spill, but received no information about it.