U.S. Water News Online
SAN DIEGO -- Ocean pollution along the U.S.-Mexico border
from inadequately treated sewage will receive more scientific study
as a result of a legal settlement submitted recently to a federal
magistrate in San Diego.
The federal government will pay for $2 million worth of monitoring
and analysis under the agreement reached between the Surfrider
Foundation and the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission.
"This settlement resolves almost two years of litigation," said
Randall Humm, a Department of Justice attorney. "It will improve
knowledge about the marine environment and help decision makers make
better decisions involving environmental protection."
The settlement, which is expected to be approved by Magistrate
Judge James Stiven, concludes a lawsuit Surfrider filed in November
1999 to force the commission to upgrade its sewage treatment at a
plant near the border.
"The studies the government will now do as part of this settlement
are what they should have done in the first place," said Rory Wicks,
a Surfrider Foundation attorney. "Two hundred million dollars has
been spent (on sewage facilities) and the beaches are still closed."
The commission's plant, which treats sewage from Mexico, has been
in constant violation of its state permit and the federal Clean Water
Act since the South Bay ocean outfall pipe became operational in
January 1999, according to officials.
The outfall discharges treated sewage, or effluent, approximately
3 1/2 miles offshore of Imperial Beach. The problem is that the
effluent doesn't meet state or federal standards and contains
contaminants that could harm humans and marine life.
"In building the border sewage plant and the South Bay outfall,
the federal government assumed the source of bacteria was the Tijuana
River," Wicks said. "Then they were surprised when the beaches
continued to be closed from high bacteria after the outfall came on
Surfrider sued to force the government to upgrade to secondary
treatment and to have independent ocean monitoring to ensure the
effluent isn't harming kelp beds or reaching South Bay beaches.
Under the settlement, only the latter is required. However, the
state recently filed its own lawsuit to compel the federal government
to upgrade to secondary treatment, a process that removes more
bacteria and solids than the current primary treatment level.
"The settlement doesn't directly affect our case and we will be
pursuing our action" to establish a deadline for the commission to
upgrade to secondary treatment, said Sandra Michioku, spokeswoman for
the state Attorney General's Office.
Beaches in Imperial Beach were closed 39 days in 2000 due to high
bacteria contamination. Experts believe the bacteria is coming
primarily from the Tijuana River, but environmentalists suspect that
ocean currents could be pushing contamination ashore from either the
U.S. outfall or Mexican sewage discharged at the shoreline at Punta
Banderas just south of the border.
"We certainly welcome any additional information that will give us
a better picture of what's happening," said Mayda Winter, an Imperial
Beach City Councilwoman.
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