Border Patrol agents say they are getting sick from massive Tijuana sewage spill

Headaches, rashes, infections, breathing problems.

An increasing number of U.S. Border Patrol agents at the Imperial Beach station have reported a host of health problems since February, when an estimated 143 million gallons of Mexican sewage spilled into the Tijuana River Valley they patrol.

It's not one of the risks typically associated with policing the border, said Christopher Harris, a union representative for National Border Patrol Council’s Local 1613.

“They’re willing to put up with the normal hazards of law enforcement,” Harris said. “We understand that’s part of our job. We get shot at. We accept all that. We do our best to mitigate it. We wear vests. We have trauma kits. But we can’t mitigate sewage and chemicals.”

Harris has been pressing administrators at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to take steps to protect his agents from the toxins that regularly pollute the valley.

In June, he documented more than 30 agents who had reported sewage-related illnesses. Since then, that number has nearly tripled, to at least 83 agents.

The Imperial Beach Border Patrol Station has about 300 employees who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border from the Pacific Ocean through the Tijuana River Valley. Some work on foot, some in ATVs or SUVs, others on horseback.

The sewage leak in February and subsequent leaks flowed into the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, which covers 71.5 miles of dirt roads and paths.

The muck sticks around for a long time as it makes its way to the ocean. It settles into the riverbanks, overflows during rains and dries out in hot weather. It is impossible for Border Patrol agents to avoid.

While patrolling on their ATVs on Nov. 10 after a rainstorm, Harris said three agents experienced ear, nose and throat problems. One said he had a strange rash inside his nose.

Border Patrol Agent Joel Sevilla said that in the summer he had to patrol areas where much of the sewage flowed.

“I had a really bad nasal infection, headaches and trouble breathing…. I was losing my breath really fast,” he said. “I’m not known for that because I’m very active. So I had to go to the doctor’s and the first time I went, they said that I had a nasal infection. They gave me some antibiotics and they treated it and it went away for like two or three days. Then it started happening again…. What was worse were the headaches because I couldn’t sleep.”

Sevilla went back to the doctor four or five times. He had to leave the prestigious ATV unit and now patrols in an SUV.

“I don’t get the headaches anymore because I’m not riding around in all that dust,” he said. “When the water dries out, it turns into dust and that’s what we breathe.”

Michael Scappechio, a spokesman with the U.S. Border Patrol, said the agency is aware of the agents’ health problems and is assessing the problem to develop short- and long-term solutions.

“Common reported acute injuries have ranged from upper-respiratory ailments to burns on extremities,” he said. “Personnel have also reported damage to boots and gloves while performing their duties."

The issue of cross-border raw sewage is a complex, decades-old issue, Scappechio said, and the Border Patrol is working with a number of stakeholders to address both the remediation of the affected areas as well as the safety challenges.

"Pinpointing the locations and sources of spills, including the contents of each incident, are critical to addressing the health and safety of our personnel,” he said. “It is the intent on the part of CBP and USBP, that the collaborative effort amongst the stakeholders involved, will result in both a safer and healthier environment in the Tijuana River Valley shortly and for the long run."

As the number of cases continued to rise this past summer, Harris said Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, visited the Imperial Beach station.

As a result of that visit, “my understanding is every week or every two weeks he gets an update on what they’re doing,” Harris said. “Now, understand their constraints. They’re not a scientific organization. They’re not an EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. They’re not a research organization. They’re doing the best they can to find money and try to mitigate.”

Harris said there was talk of building some showers where agents could decontaminate, but he wondered how you can talk about decontamination without knowing what chemicals you’re decontaminating. What’s needed, he said, are more reporting on spills and more testing of the sewage water.

That responsibility falls to a small federal agency.

The International Boundary and Water Commission is in charge of documenting each spill. A branch of the State Department with approximately 250 employees, it is charged with developing binational solutions to issues that arise on sanitation, water quality and flood control in the border region.

The commission has an office in San Diego and runs the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant at the U.S.-Mexico border. Completed in 1997, the facility treats 25 million gallons of Tijuana sewage per day.

However, the plant can’t treat all the sewage flowing across the border. Tijuana’s population – which officially stands at 1.56 million, but unofficially may be as high as 2 million – has outpaced the city’s ability to provide adequate and updated sewage infrastructure. As a consequence, sewage spills occur frequently.

Barbara Zaragoza writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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