Clean Water Wars:
by Lori Saldaña
San Diego City Council approves a
"final solution" for the Tijuana River Valley
ith summer approaching, many San Diegans are looking
forward to visiting local beaches and swimming, surfing, and diving in the
ocean. But if recent events offer any indication of what the future holds,
better hit the beach soon. The waters off San Diego may never be cleaner
than they are today.
Just a few miles south of Pt. Loma, construction of
the International Wastewater Treatment Plant (IWTP) in the Tijuana River
Valley is lurching ahead. Its many problems include lawsuits, lack of funds,
and a Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) issued by the city's Development
and Environmental Planning Division that found significant, unmitigated
impacts from industrial toxics and heavy metals. City staff reported that,
without an industrial pretreatment program in Tijuana, contamination of
ocean waters will likely occur once the plant goes into operation. According
to the FEIR, released on May 12:
The potential impact of the expected elevated toxics/heavy
metal content of the treated Mexican effluent is considered potentially
significant and not mitigated at this time. Total reliance on future source
control in Mexico to pretreat wastewater prior to conveyance to the IWTP
is not sufficiently guaranteed to occur such that the impact can be considered
Long-time readers of the Earth Times may remember that
problems with industrial toxics and heavy metals in Tijuana's sewage were
reported in these pages last spring. Since then, the peso devaluation and
ongoing economic crisis has made Tijuana's ability to finance a pretreatment
program even more unlikely than it was a year ago.
Rush to judgment
However, on May 22, Mayor Susan Golding and the City
Councilmembers voted unanimously to authorize the city to move forward with
the construction of the IWTP's outfall. The vote took place only 10 days
after the FEIR was released, in violation of the city's Municipal Code,
which requires a 14-day public comment period on any environmental document.
Just before the vote, City Manager Jack McGrory advised
the Council that "We're asking you to make an exception to that [14-day
review period], because it is a federal project, and a state of emergency
exists in the Tijuana River Valley."
The legality of this vote is questionable, and McGrory
failed to explain that this "state of emergency" has been in effect
for years. By making the situation in the Tijuana River a "permanent"
emergency, elected officials have been able to receive state and federal
funds for cleanup efforts that would otherwise be their responsibility to
Testimony at the council hearing was at times as toxic
as the wastewater flowing from Tijuana. Councilmember Valerie Stallings
asked Schlessinger to "talk to me about the currents and the flow and
the distribution of whatever comes out of the pipe," apparently referring
to comments made by representatives from the Sierra Club and Surfrider.
(Witnesses had testified earlier that oceanographic research shows toxic
wastes may return to Coronado and Imperial Beach, carried via near-shore
Schlessinger angrily replied, "This issue about
the gyre [recirculating current] and the beaches being contaminated is pure
BS. It's not going to happen." A few moments later, Councilmember McCarty
applauded his statement, saying "Hallelujah, right on - it's the first
time a city staff member has said anything direct."
McCarty then continued, "Well, you know, I think
we need to hear things like that, rather than always hearing a bureaucrat
never answer the question. You know, this makes it much easier for Ms. Stallings
and the rest of us to understand." Apparently, if anyone understands
BS, it's the City Council.
Other Councilmembers demonstrated a lack of concern
for protecting ocean water quality, notably appointee Scott Harvey, who
represents Ocean Beach and Pt. Loma. Rather than worrying about the ITP's
projected $35 million funding shortfall for secondary treatment, Harvey
announced that "It seems to me, this whole question of cost underscores
the importance of getting our exemption legislation passed." He then
asked Schlessinger, "Isn't it true, if that succeeds... some of the
costs of secondary won't be assessed" at the International plant?
"There's currently a section in the law that would
permit less than secondary treatment facilities to be built down there,"
replied Schlessinger. But he failed to add that the standards and potential
impacts for this project, as evaluated in the federal Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS) issued last year, were entirely based on a secondary treatment
facility. City and federal officials seem to be trying to change the project
in the middle of the process, and the citizens of San Diego, Imperial Beach
and Coronado may wind up paying the price as partially treated wastewater
flows out to sea.
At the start of the hearing, city staff members described
this project as the "final solution" for sewage flows in the Tijuana
River. A few people in the audience who remembered their World War II history
lessons cringed at the use of the term. But given the industrial toxics
and heavy metals in the wastewater, the lack of funds in Tijuana for a pretreatment
program, and the lack of funds in the US for secondary treatment at the
proposed plant, this term may be closer to the truth than anyone wants to
Add YOUR voice
Do you think the City Council jumped the gun by approving
the ocean outfall project before the end of the public review period? What
about the impact of the toxics from Tijuana? Let Mayor Susan Golding and
Councilman Juan Vargas (District 8, including the Tijuana River Valley)
know what you think about this massive ocean outfall. You can write them
at: City Administration Building, 202 C Street, San Diego, CA 92101. Or,
call the Mayor's office at 236-6330; fax: 236-7228. Call Juan Vargas at
236-6688; fax: 231-7918.
If you want to take a more active part in protecting
San Diego's ocean, contact Craig Adams of the Sierra Club at 299-1741 to
find out how you can help. Volunteers are needed to get the word out. In
particular, volunteers are needed at the Ocean Beach Street Fair, June 24-25.
Many Congressional representatives are now scheduling
"Town Council" meetings in their districts. These typically take
place at Community Recreations Centers or shopping malls, on the weekend
or weekday evenings. This is an excellent opportunity to talk with your
Representatives face to face, ask questions about their votes on bills that
are bad for the environment, and insist on answers then and there. (Often,
replies to written questions are offered weeks after the vote has been taken.)
To find out more, contact your Congressman's office
and ask if he has any meetings planned. Ask to be placed on the mailing
list so you can hear about these meetings well in advance. Then, show up,
speak up, and let them know what's on your mind!
Lori Saldaña, a regular contributor to the Earth Times, is
a writer, public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation
and environmental issues, and an environmental activist.