EPA chief gets tour of Tijuana River sewage and trash that foul San Diego beaches

August 30, 2021

In April, Congressman Peters invited EPA Administrator, Michael Regan, to visit the Tijuana River to witness the environmental disaster that we must solve. Last week, he toured the Valley with him and they discussed the projects that will reduce sewage flow and contamination.

Read more about their conversation in this  August 20th piece by the San Diego Union Tribune, posted below:

EPA chief gets tour of Tijuana River sewage and trash that foul San Diego beaches

August 20th, 2021

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan got a first-hand look Friday at the Tijuana River Valley, where hundreds of millions of gallons of water laced with raw sewage, trash and industrial chemicals regularly foul San Diego shorelines, shuttering beaches as far north as Coronado.
“You know, you can read about these things and have your own visualization, but seeing it first-hand really is impactful,” said Regan, the first EPA administrator to tour the local border region.

He had plenty to see. On Tuesday, 1.8 million gallons of urban runoff that included untreated sewage flowed across the border at the Tijuana River after a pump station on the Mexico side of the border was temporarily shut down for emergency repairs, according to the International Water Boundary and Water Commission, the U.S. federal agency tasked with monitoring cross-border flows.

Regan’s visit comes as the EPA is set to announce soon which border water infrastructure projects it will fund with $300 million allocated under a 2019 trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada to address the cross-border sewage spills.

“We recognize the urgency of this issue,” said Regan. “That’s why we are working as swiftly as possible to identify the best options for attacking the transborder sewage.”

The EPA administrator indicated progress is being made and momentum has built to finally address the problem. But he recognized that potential solutions, such as building a new sewage-treatment plant at the border, could take years just to complete the federally-mandated environmental review process.

“If we work as expeditiously as possible,” said Regan. “Once we get through the review process that we need to and the design process, we’re hoping that we can begin construction sometime in 2023.”

In the meantime, Regan said, the agency has been working with Mexican counterparts on short-term measures “that we know could make a difference sooner rather than later.” He mentioned those ideas could include an earth berm in Tijuana, as well as funding to repair and upgrade pump stations and broken collection pipes south of the border.

Congressman Scott Peters (CA-52) highlighted the decades-old problem during an Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing in April, telling Regan it had to be “one the most dire environmental catastrophes on the continent.” He invited Regan to see the gravity of the problem for himself and toured with him on Friday.

Although sewage in the Tijuana River has been a problem for decades, it has worsened over the last few years, according to Peters. In 2018, south San Diego County beaches affected by the pollution were closed 101 days out of the year. In 2019, that increased to 243 days, and in 2020 it was 295 days, according to Peters.

“In 2021, the beaches have been closed for half the year and the contaminated river and nearby canyons have experienced toxic, dangerous spills every day,” he said.

Regan talked about the border pollution as an environmental justice concern, with a “disproportionate impact on the communities that have born this pollution for decades.”

“I don’t think this problem ever would have started in the north. I think it would have been called out before it could have ever begun,” he said. “We can’t support economic growth at the expense of protecting the public health and the environment. I don’t believe that we have to choose between environmental protection and economic prosperity.”

As Peters pointed out, the issue is hardly new. For decades, Tijuana’s wastewater system has been overwhelmed by the city’s fast-expanding population. EPA background materials provided to Regan ahead of his visit note Tijuana’s rapid annual population growth of 3.5 percent.

Thousands of homes, including makeshift villages along the border, have no plumbing. Those neighborhoods discharge feces, urine and trash directly into creeks and canyons that flow toward the border whenever it rains.

Earlier this month, the EPA held high-level binational meetings with officials from Mexico, including Germán Martínez Santoyo, the general director of Conagua, Mexico’s National Commission of Water; Esteban Moctezuma Barragán, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. and Roberto Velasco Álvarez, the head of the North American Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At that meeting, the Mexican delegation presented a total of 15 projects as proposed solutions to the contamination that the Tijuana River.

“The real issue is while we’re working as hard as we can on the United States side of the border, the problem is coming from Mexico, so we really need to work with our Mexican counterparts to look at that source,” said Regan.

The EPA is evaluating 10 different projects and combinations of projects on the U.S. side to reduce sewage flows, and their impacts on mostly South Bay residents. The largest of those projects would be building a new international treatment plant capable of treating 163 million gallons of polluted water a day.

“We need action now,” said Peters to Regan. “This is an international catastrophe. It’s happening in a working-class minority community in a far corner of our country, so I have to tell you that these Americans are counting on me and you to fix it.”

In May, several regional public agencies invited Vice President Kamala Harris to also tour the Tijuana River Valley, so she can “see the impacts of the transboundary flows firsthand and gain an enhanced understanding of the long-term investments that are necessary to solves this public health and environmental crisis.”



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