Dozens of angry South Bay residents packed a International Boundaries Water Commission meeting Thursday evening, concerned about the massive sewage spill in Tijuana, Mexico, that contaminated water in the San Diego area.
“When our kids can’t go and swim at the beach that’s right across form us, a state beach, it’s very upsetting,” said meeting attendee Leslie Bell of Coronado Cays. “We just want to make sure that somebody is held accountable for it.”
The commission agreed to carry out a binational investigation into the more than 143 million gallons of raw sewage spilled in Tijuana. Additionally, officials explained the situation to residents and answered their questions.
Countless residents in the area have felt, and smelled, the aftermath of the spill. In addition to the health concerns and general inconveniences the incident has produced, people nearby are concerned that they're just now hearing about it.
"If it hadn't gotten worse and worse, they would have just gotten away with it if they could have," Bell said as her daughter stood nearby with a sign that read "Mexico must Pay!"
"So how often is this happening?" Bell added. "I feel like I have to go test the water every time my kids go swimming now."
The spill has been described as the worst sewage spill in more than a decade by Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina.
The leak began Feb. 6, according to a report by the commission. The sewage slowly seeped into the Tijuana River and made its way up the coast, causing an unusual odor for those people living in Imperial Beach.
The odor has lingered in the community for weeks.
Dedina says the city filed an official complaint on Feb. 15. He wants the U.S. government to investigate what caused the spill and why his city's residents weren't notified of the contamination.
"We expect to get results," Dedina said. "We're here to do that, but more importantly, to get the public to turn outrage into action so that our federal elected officials take action to invest in our border infrastructure."
The commission said the leak was likely caused by sewer construction gone wrong. The State Public Services Commission of Tijuana repaired a sewer line last month and, during the repairs, diverted sewage into the Tijuana River.
Roberto Espinoza, an engineer and representative for Mexico's arm of the International Boundaries Water Commission, spoke at the meeting through an interpreter. He said a pipe in the main line near the Tijuana and Alamar Rivers' intersection failed under pressure from recent storms. He added that the leak was not intentional and happened during an emergency repair.
Espinoza went on to say that there was a breakdown in communication between the commission and operators in Mexico, and that while he can't explain how it happened, he does regret it.
"You should have received that information on time," Espinoza said.
Local leaders believe the spill was preventable.
Weeks later, signs remain on the beach warning people to stay out of the ocean from Imperial Beach to Coronado.
In addition to community leaders, many residents are also furious, saying the sewage should've been recaptured and put back into the treatment system instead of being allowed to travel all the way into the Pacific Ocean.
Plus, they say they were never warned of the activity.
A preliminary U.S. investigation determined the spill released upwards of 143 million gallons of raw sewage, but Mexico disputes that.
Dave Gibson, Executive Officer San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, said that given advances, this should not have happened.
“Two-hundred years ago this might have been the state of the science but there's absolutely no question, whatsoever, that the state of the science is you capture the sewage and you keep it in the system," Gibson told NBC 7 on Thursday.
The spill prompted Gibson to write a letter to both U.S. and Mexican commissioners, requesting the need for “improved sewer system reliability and interagency communication.”
The letter included a list of measures that Gibson said the commission should consider including the detailed investigation into “the breakdown in communications” that led to the spill, “without any apparent attempt at diversion or public notification.”
Gibson also suggested developing a “binational public notification protocol for all sewage releases into storm water systems, the Tijuana River, or its tributaries.” This would include notifying public health agencies, landowners and the media in both countries, in the event that a spill like this happens again.
Gibson also wants the commission to consider utilizing a back-up pump station in San Ysidro that, in his words, would “complement the existing station in Tijuana."
Gibson argued it could, under special circumstances, divert emergency flows to the City of San Diego’s Point Loma or South Bay wastewater treatment plants, or the commission's wastewater treatment plant.
Other suggestions include:
• “Construction of a weir across the main channel of the Tijuana River to allow capture, retention, infiltration, or diversion of unexpected flows during the dry season to prevent or minimize impacts to the lower Tijuana River and Estuary and beaches in Tijuana, Imperial Beach, and Coronado.”
• “An enhanced and binationally coordinated watershed and coastal waters monitoring program to develop information that would inform our efforts through Minute 320 to improve environmental quality in both countries.”
To read the full letter, click here.
According to a document released by the commission Thursday, both U.S. and Mexican commissioners have agreed to investigate the transboundary sewage spill.
“The investigation will determine when the spill occurred, quantify how much sewage spilled, specify the characteristics of the sewage, and identify problems in procedures to notify the Commission and the public,” the document states.
The investigation on the spill and a report must be submitted within 30 days, per an agreement between U.S. Commissioner Edward Drusina and Mexican Commissioner Roberto Salmon. The commission’s binational Water Quality Work Group will handle the investigation.