Treatment of Tijuana Raw Waste to Resume

Times Staff Writer

In a step that Mexican officials say will ensure that sewage from south of the border will no longer pollute South Bay beaches, the city's crippled sewage treatment plant will resume full operation in two months, government officials vowed Tuesday.

Francisco Covarrubias, Mexico's undersecretary for Urban Development and Ecology, announced the planned $1 million of repairs at a news conference here, capping months of speculation about the future of the $20-million operation.

Plant Being Watched

The status of the treatment plant--touted here as a solution to the decades-old problem of sewage pollution along the border in San Diego and Tijuana--is being watched closely on both sides of the border. Many U.S. experts have expressed doubts that the system will ever function adequately, and they pointed to its breakdown last year as evidence.

But Covarrubias, who made the trip from Mexico City and led a group of U.S. and Mexican journalists and officials through the facility, said that completion of the repairs--mainly lining two of the three large treatment ponds--"will assure that discharges will not contaminate beaches on both sides of the border."

The pollution by Mexican sewage of U.S. coastline, particularly in Imperial Beach, has been a longtime irritant in U.S.-Mexican relations. The contamination has prompted occasional quarantines at U.S. beaches.

Even with the latest improvements, many U.S. officials remain unconvinced that the plant will eliminate the pollution of U.S. farmland and coastline by Mexican sewage. Critics point out that Tijuana's daily sewage flow of more than 20 million gallons already equals or exceeds the new plant's capacity.

Addressing the issue of Mexico's future sewage needs, Covarrubias said officials were examining three different sites in eastern Tijuana for the possible construction of a second treatment facility, which will cost about $4 million. Construction could start later this year, and the plant may be operating by 1990, though its exact design has not been determined, Covarrubias said.

Other Plans Scrapped

He also said the Mexican government had shelved plans for an ambitious expansion of the existing plant. That decision was not made because of the recent breakdown, he said, but because it makes more sense to build a new plant in Tijuana's fast-growing eastern suburbs, where the city's many assembly plants could use the treated water.

Covarrubias said the projected new plant, to be built near a tributary of the Tijuana River, would not increase contamination of the already severely polluted river, which flows into southern San Diego County.

Some U.S. experts have frowned on the location of the proposed plant, fearing more river pollution.

"We have some fairly serious concerns about a treatment plant there," said Frank Collins, district administrator for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado), who has been active on the sewage issue.

Tuesday's disclosures represented Mexico's first comprehensive public comments about the crippled plant since two of the facility's three treatment ponds suffered extensive leaks last October, prompting officials to shut down and drain the two ponds. Since then, Covarrubias said, officials have decided to line both ponds with impermeable layers of asphalt-sealed fiberglass and a mixture of clay, gravel and stone.

A third pond continued operating throughout the shutdown, officials said, but it only provided minimal treatment. As a result, U.S. officials said, up to 20 million gallons of largely untreated Mexican sewage was being dumped daily into the Pacific, creating a potential health problem for Mexican and U.S. beaches. However, prevailing currents are believed to have taken most of the sewage south, U.S. officials said.

On Tuesday, raw sewage topped with globs of detergent suds was allowed to flow anew into one of the newly lined ponds at the sprawling plant site, which sits in striking mountainous terrain a few miles south of downtown, overlooking the Pacific. At the other disabled lagoon, workers were laying strips of insulating material to prepare for its expected opening within two months.

U.S. officials praised the repair work.

"I think the Mexicans have done a wonderful job with limited resources," said Dick Reavis, border issues coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Diego.

However, the Mexicans' decision not to line the third pond is likely to prompt additional concern north of the border. Sealing the third pond is unnecessary and too costly, say Mexican officials, who are hampered by fiscal restraints.

Amid considerable fanfare, Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid personally inaugurated the facility in January, 1987. Despite doubts expressed in the United States, officials here immediately hailed the facility as a fulfillment of Mexico's "commitment" to battle the problem of border pollution.

At the time, skeptics on the U.S. side pointed to the unlined treatment ponds as a potential source of trouble.

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