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Clean Water

By | Blog, Health, Media Releases, News, Water Protection

Environmental Groups Sue Federal Government to Spur Action in Tijuana Sewage Crisis

South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant, in San Diego at the border with Mexico,  routinely discharges extremely high levels of sewage and toxic chemicals into the Tijuana River and Pacific Ocean in violation of its Clean Water Act permit, leading to years of public health impacts, beach closures and degradation of the Tijuana River Estuary.

 SAN DIEGO –– San Diego Coastkeeper (Coastkeeper) and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) filed suit in federal court Thursday against the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and Veolia Water North America-West (Veolia) for violations of the South Bay facility’s Clean Water Act discharge permit. The lawsuit documents hundreds of violations of permit limits for discharges of sewage bacteria and hazardous chemicals over the past five years that have overwhelmed the Tijuana River and coastal ocean waters in San Diego with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. IBWC’s complete failure to operate the South Bay facility properly is a major cause of the ongoing public health and environmental catastrophe in the Tijuana River Valley that has led to years of beach closures, severe economic impacts and growing evidence of grave public health risks to residents of Imperial Beach, San Ysidro and other South County communities.

Coastkeeper and CERF’s suit seeks a court order requiring IBWC and Veolia to take immediate action to stop these illegal discharges. They also seek the imposition of civil penalties against Veolia for its negligent operation of the South Bay facility. Veolia is a private company contracted by IBWC to operate the South Bay Treatment Plant. Coastkeeper and CERF’s Complaint was filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of California.

IBWC is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of State charged with operating infrastructure along the U.S./Mexico border. Since its construction in 1990, the IBWC’s South Bay treatment plant has suffered from operational and maintenance failures resulting in chronic, severe pollution of coastal waters and the Tijuana River estuary. The City of Imperial Beach has borne the brunt of this impact, with its public beach closed for over two consecutive years due to polluted discharges from the facility and related discharges of raw sewage from Tijuana.

The Clean Water Act violations documented in the lawsuit include:

  • Over 500 violations of permit limits for discharges into the Pacific Ocean, including 130 violations involving extremely hazardous chemicals such as DDT and PCBs at levels thousands of times the limit. PCBs and DDT were banned in the U.S. decades ago.
  • Numerous violations from spills and discharges of bacterial pathogens, trash, and heavy metals, including lead, from canyon collectors funneling waste directly into the Tijuana River Estuary.
  • Violations of receiving water limits for bacteria in the Pacific Ocean at hundreds of times the allowable limit, in areas designated for water recreation and shellfish harvesting.
  • Failure to submit self-monitoring reports, depriving the public of meaningful access to information about the treatment plant’s discharges.

 “We are bringing this lawsuit on behalf of the people in our South Bay communities that continue to suffer the effects of IBWC’s incompetence, and the coastal and marine wildlife and natural resources severely degraded by this relentless flow of pollution,” said Phillip Musegaas, Executive Director of Coastkeeper. “We will use the power of the law to hold IBWC accountable and compel action to solve the Tijuana sewage crisis once and for all.”

“We need a holistic, fully funded solution to this public health and environmental catastrophe,” said Marco Gonzalez, Executive Director and lead counsel for CERF. “The historical patchwork of funding and planning clearly hasn’t worked. The government needs to act with the sense of urgency demanded by this situation.”

 Background

Settlement of a previous lawsuit against IBWC in 2022 for its previous pollution of the Tijuana Estuary and Pacific Ocean resulted in $300 million in funding from EPA to modernize and expand the South Bay Treatment Plant. However, IBWC was forced to acknowledge in 2023 that the plant needed at least $150 million in repairs just to bring it back to a basic operating condition, and the expansion of the plant to accommodate future needs would cost nearly $1 billion dollars. In March 2024, IBWC received an additional $103 million in federal funding to fix its decrepit facilities. Despite these infusions of funding, the South Bay Treatment Plant’s permit violations continue unabated, and huge volumes of sewage and hazardous chemicals continue to contaminate the Tijuana River Valley and local communities.

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 About San Diego Coastkeeper

Founded in 1995, San Diego Coastkeeper protects and restores San Diego County’s bays, beaches, watersheds, and ocean for the people and wildlife that depend on them. Coastkeeper balances community outreach, education, science, advocacy, and legal enforcement to promote clean water stewardship and a healthy coastal ecosystem.

For more information, visit www.sdcoastkeeper.org

 About Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation

CERF is an environmental nonprofit founded in 2008 by surfers in Encinitas, CA. CERF is dedicated to the preservation, protection, and defense of the environment, the wildlife, and the natural resources of the California Coast. To learn more, visit www.cerf.org CERF is represented by Coast Law Group, LLP. www.coastlaw.com

CERF’s lead attorney is Marco Gonzalez

Environmental Groups Reach Agreement With City of San Diego to Make Local Waters Safer for San Diegans

By | Media Releases

November 26, 2018

For Immediate Release

Contacts:

San Diego Coastkeeper – Matt O’Malley, [email protected], 619-758-7743 ext 119

Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation – Marco Gonzalez, [email protected], 760-942-8505

November 26 – Environmental Groups Reach Agreement With City of San Diego to Make Local Waters Safer for San Diegans

  • City of San Diego to address sources of pollution harming Mission Bay, Rose Creek, and Tijuana River
  • Pollution from Miramar Landfill, wastewater treatments plants, and sludge treatment plants focus of improvement efforts

SAN DIEGO, November 26, 2018 – Local non-profit environmental organizations San Diego Coastkeeper (Coastkeeper) and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) have reached agreement with the City of San Diego (the City) regarding major stormwater infrastructure projects to improve water quality in several critical water bodies including Mission Bay, Rose Creek, San Clemente Creek, and the Tijuana River. In addition to improving local water quality, the required attention and spending will help to bring the City into compliance with federal and state clean water legal requirements.

Polluted urban runoff represents the San Diego region’s primary threat to water quality. Once water from rain, irrigation flows, leaks, or other surface waters begins to flow over hard city surfaces, it picks up accumulated urban pollutants, such as oil, grease, pesticides, particulate metals, pet waste, toxins, bacteria, and viruses. The resulting polluted runoff flows untreated through San Diego’s stormwater system and into local rivers, bays, and coastal waters, where it poses a serious risk to human health and wildlife alike.

Under the agreement, the City will upgrade practices for handling stormwater, as well as human and solid waste, at five major City-owned facilities: Miramar Landfill, Metro Biosolids Center, North City Reclamation Plant, Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, and South Bay Water Reclamation Plant. Additionally, Coastkeeper and CERF negotiated for the City to contribute $35,000 to San Diego Audubon Society, which will use the funds to improve water quality and restore habitats in and around Mission Bay.

“The City’s own recent audit of its stormwater department revealed a long history of failing to prioritize stormwater infrastructure and management practices needed to protect clean water, public health, and our beaches and streams,” said Coastkeeper Executive Director and Managing Attorney Matt O’Malley. “These failures were also evident in the City’s handling of its own facilities, which for years have been polluting Mission Bay and other local waterways where children, families, and wildlife depend on clean water.”

Early last year, Coastkeeper and CERF observed that the City was discharging stormwater laden with toxic pollutants, including bacteria from human waste, dissolved metals, and excess nutrients directly into local waters during rainstorms. The investigations identified possible impacts to Rose Creek, San Clemente Creek, Mission Bay, Tijuana River, and ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. The groups noted to City officials that pollutant levels leaving the Miramar Landfill and entering into Mission Bay were the highest they had seen from any single facility in the county.

Regarding the negotiation process and settlement ultimately achieved, Marco Gonzalez, CERF’s Executive Director and attorney with Coast Law Group LLP noted, “We have a longstanding working relationship with the City’s stormwater and public utilities departments, so we were confident they would take our concerns seriously and allow us to achieve environmental benefits without having to engage in expensive litigation.”

Actions taken by the City under the agreement will ensure any water discharged at the five facilities subject to the agreement meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act, standards designed to protect human and environmental health.

All three parties jointly agreed on settlement terms, which were approved by the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. The City plans to make all necessary improvements and modifications to its practices at these facilities by November 2023.

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About San Diego Coastkeeper

Founded in 1995, San Diego Coastkeeper protects the region’s bays, beaches, watersheds and ocean for the people and wildlife that depend on them. Coastkeeper uses community outreach, education, and advocacy to promote stewardship of clean water and healthy coastal ecosystems. For more information, visit San Diego Coastkeeper online at http://www.sdcoastkeeper.org

About Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF)

CERF is a nonprofit environmental organization founded in 2008 by surfers in North San Diego County and active throughout California’s coastal communities. CERF was established to aggressively advocate, including through litigation, for the protection and enhancement of coastal natural resources and the quality of life for coastal residents. For more information visit CERF online at https://cerf.org/