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California mayor, Mexican governor launch war of words over cross-border sewage spills

In this 2018 photo, Imperial Beach, Calif., Mayor Serge Dedina surveys the Tijuana River Valley.
(Howard Lipin)

The mayor of Imperial Beach, Calif., and the governor of Baja California are engaged in an ongoing public feud over cross-border sewage spills, which have been a problem for years and resulted in polluting local communities in the United States and making people ill.

Mexican Gov. Jaime Bonilla has held three separate news conferences this month demanding Mayor Serge Dedina apologize for his public criticisms of Mexico’s inability to stop sewage from flowing into the U.S.

For the record:

10:11 AM, Oct. 01, 2020An earlier version of this post referred to Imperial County when it should have referred to Imperial Beach.

Bonilla publicly insisted that his administration has already fixed the problem by repairing broken pumps and clearing trash along the Tijuana River Valley. However, Dedina pointed out that Tijuana’s overburdened sewage system continues to discharge contaminated water from a pump station six miles south of the border. Until that is fixed, he said, cross-border sewage flows will continue.

The pumps along the Tijuana River Valley were only one source of the cross-border flow. Even though they are repaired, the other flow still threatens Imperial Beach residents.

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To be sure, repairing the pumps has had a positive effect. There have not been any cross-border sewage flows in the last couple of weeks and the Imperial Beach shoreline has remained open for the longest continuous period since the pumps stopped working in November 2019.

When those pumps broke, sewage flowed through the Tijuana River Valley on an almost daily basis. Before, sewage only flowed during heavy rainstorms.

But even though the pumps are fixed, Imperial Beach is still vulnerable to sewage from Punta Banderas, the pump station six miles south of the border, during south swells that cause sewage to drift north to Imperial Beach.

Sewage-filled south swells most recently forced Imperial Beach to close beaches on Labor Day.

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Officials from the International Boundary and Water Commission say the incident was caused by trash build-up in one of the intake screens at the station and resulted in a flow of roughly 877,000 gallons of contaminated water.

“We’re back to the normal horrific situation that still needs to be fixed,” Dedina said. “All they did was repair the apocalyptic situation that we had.”

Bonilla has dismissed Dedina’s critiques as an attempt to raise his political profile.

“We will not allow a mayor to attack Mexico because of his political aspirations, because he wants to be senator,” Bonilla told Zeta, a Tijuana news outlet.

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Dedina added that this public spat has actually been good for Imperial Beach because it has brought attention to the cross-border sewage issue, particularly in Mexico where local media have covered Bonilla’s press conferences and asked about Punta Banderas.

A recent report by Telemundo noted that a Committee for Clean Beaches has met only once since Bonilla took office in June 2019. In that report, Baja California state officials acknowledged that the Punta Banderas pump station has not been fixed, but they have a plan in place and hope to get federal funding to execute the plan.

Officials say they expect to receive that funding sometime in 2021, according to the Telemundo report.

Imperial Beach is not the only place along the border where cross-border sewage spills are a problem. Earlier this month, CBS’ “60 Minutes” reported on continuous raw sewage spills from the Tijuana River into the United States as well as the Pacific Ocean. U.S. officials recently announced new investments in infrastructure in the river valley that will address problems with sewage runoff.

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Regarding Bonilla’s demands, Dedina laughed when asked whether he planned to issue a public apology.

The mayor said he and his son have personally gotten sick from polluted waters; so have Imperial Beach residents, lifeguards, Border Patrol personnel and Navy sailors.

“We have a long way to go before we ever apologize,” he said.

Earlier this year, the federal government set aside $300 million for infrastructure projects along the U.S.-Mexico border. Additionally, after lobbying from local stakeholders and San Diego’s congressional delegation, the Environmental Protection Agency committed millions to short-term solutions to slow down cross-border sewage until a more permanent fix is in place.

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Solis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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