California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board submitted a 60-day notice of intent to sue the United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) over the Tijuana River sewage crisis Monday.
The U.S. Commission is in charge of protecting residents on both sides of the border and addressing the wastewater discharges from the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, and Becerra claims the commission is not adequately managing the flows across the border.
The notice alleges the U.S. Commission violated the Clean Water Act by allowing more than 12 million gallons of wastewater that flowed from the Tijuana River Watershed into California to go untreated since 2015. Becerra also says they are in violation of their permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System issued by the San Diego Water Board.
“For far too long, uncontrolled sewage spills have polluted and impaired the Tijuana River Valley and Pacific Ocean. This must stop,” said Attorney General Becerra. “It’s our duty to protect the public health and natural resources of the people of California. We will do what is necessary to get those responsible to clean up this mess.”
On Monday the IBWC named Principal Engineer Jose Nunez its acting Commissioner. The IBWC did not say if its previous commissioner, Edward Drusina, was fired, but said in a statement that Nunez' designation is "consistent with the agency's longstanding order of succession in the event the Commissioner position is vacated."
Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina called the move a "step in the right direction" in a Facebook post on Monday.
"I had demanded that Drusina be fire three years ago due to his lack of interest in doing anything at all to stop the toxic pollution of our beaches," Dedina said in part.
The City of Imperial Beach, along with Chula Vista, filed a federal lawsuit against the IBWC in regards to sewage spills back in March.
In January, Senator Dianne Feinstein asked the Trump administration a $20 million budget for the Environmental Protection Agency’s U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure program.
“This past cycle, the House of Representatives cut that spending from appropriation bill, so senator Feinstein is really championing this effort and ensuring that this program is not eliminated,” Wildcoast Coastal and Marine Director Paloma Aguirre, said in January. “We have an aging infrastructure system in Tijuana and because the city of Tijuana sits 300 feet above sea level, anything that would collapse or any breaks in that system would cause a massive sewage spill like what we saw in February of 2017.”
The wastewater often contains excessive levels of pesticide s, heavy metals, and bacteria.
“These polluted flows are a dire threat to both human health and the sensitive wildlife in the estuary and Pacific Ocean near our international border,” said San Diego Water Board’s Executive Officer David Gibson. “Residents of both sides of the border near this waterway and its outfall deserve better and we have an obligation to act. The Regional Board has the same expectations of federal agencies that it has for any agency that it regulates. The US Commission must comply with the Clean Water Act and its NPDES permit and make the necessary infrastructure improvements to its facilities to prevent contaminated flows from entering the United States.”
Assemblymember Todd Gloria, who represents the coastal border with Mexico, said his constituents have dealt with the environmental disaster for too long. “Since the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission seems uninterested in carrying out its legal duties to treat the wastewater flowing into the United States, we must hold them accountable,” Gloria said. “I applaud and am proud to stand with Attorney General Becerra and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board in support of this action, as well as the Notice of Intent filed by the City of Imperial Beach. It is time for the pollution in the Tijuana River Valley to be stopped once and for all and for all stakeholders to work together to restore the quality-of-life for the region.”
Many Border Patrol agents have also become sick, reporting infections, rashes, headaches and respiratory problems. Along with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, U.S. Customs and Border Protection launched its own investigation last year.
"We need the US Commission to do their part. It’s past time,” said Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher. "Our residents deserve better than the constant spillage of sewage that ends up polluting our community parks, beaches and coast."
The County Department of Environmental Health (DEH) has already closed South Bay beaches due to contaminated runoff after heavy rains several times this year.
When asked for comment on the potential lawsuit, the IBWC said it does not comment on pending litigation.