TIJUANA — A breakdown of this city's highly touted new sewage treatment system has led to renewed doubts about Mexico's ability to handle Tijuana's ever-expanding volume of waste without polluting sea and land here and in the United States.
Mexican officials recently acknowledged that the $20-million plant--perhaps Mexico's most visible commitment to battle the problem of border pollution--has been shut down since Oct. 26 because of major leaks from two of the three large holding ponds where raw sewage is collected and treated. Authorities were said to be working on sealing the leaks, but there was no official word on when the plant might reopen.
On the U.S. side, experts who follow the issue closely projected that it would be some time--at least six months, according to two informed estimates--before the plant was once again treating sewage.
"It's not going to be a matter of days or weeks before Mexico gets this back into operation," said Richard Reavis, border coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Diego. "It's going to be a fairly long process."
Meanwhile, the plant breakdown means that about 20 million gallons of untreated sewage is being discharged daily into the Pacific surf at a site 5.6 miles south of the border, raising the possibility of additional pollution of beaches on both sides of the border. As a result of the discharge, San Diego County authorities have resumed daily testing of sea-water quality north of the border.
"Any sewage in an environment where there's body contact is bad," noted John Melbourn, a public health engineer with San Diego County.
The plant's problems have once again focused debate on Mexico's ability to treat the huge volumes of sewage generated in Tijuana, a city of more than 1 million residents. Critics have long questioned Mexico's ability to handle Tijuana's wastes, citing the nation's limited financial resources and the comparatively embryonic environmental movement south of the border. The border sewage problem has been debated for decades in San Diego.
"There's no question that some people are now saying, 'I told you so,' " said an official on the U.S. side who, like a number of others, asked that his name not be used, fearing that his comments would be construed negatively in Mexico.
For years, experts skeptical about Mexico's capabilities have called for construction of a massive, binational treatment plant to be built at the border. However, such a facility's staggering cost--approaching $500 million, according to some estimates--has scared off officials on both sides of the border.
Whether Mexico's latest problems will renew the call for such a large-scale facility remains to be seen. "We have to get to a point where, out of frustration, or out of concern for public health, the Mexicans and the United States must get together and decide that we have to have a joint treatment facility," said one U.S. proponent of such a project.
Others say such an approach is chimerical, as the construction of such a plant is extremely unlikely.
"People who think we can build one grandiose project and be completely rid of the problem are very naive," said Brian Bilbray, a San Diego County supervisor who has long been involved with the problem. "This is an issue we're going to have to work on and work on for the next 20 years."
The sewage plant breakdown in Tijuana poses a more immediate dilemma.
Officials said that the breakdown has not been definitively ruled out as a source of pollution that contributed to a recent northward extension of the long-term beach quarantine at Imperial Beach--the first such extension in more than three years. Officials acknowledge that runoff from recent rains is the more likely culprit. However, the runoff itself is teeming with sewage that, for years, has entered southern San Diego County from Mexico via the Tijuana River and various border canyons.
Moreover, a northward current, though unusual, could quickly move the spilled sewage toward San Diego's beaches.
Beyond the breakdown of Tijuana's sewage plant, other questions remain about the treatment situation south of the border.
Mexico has apparently delayed construction of a sister plant that was slated to be constructed alongside the now-disabled facility; the sister plant was expected to be operational by next year. And the future of yet another proposed treatment facility on the city's fast-growing east side still remains murky.
The additional treatment capacity is considered crucial because current treatment demand nearly exceeds the limits of the existing facility. Currently, Tijuana generates about 23 million gallons of sewage daily into its sewerage system; that is also the approximate capacity of the treatment plant. The city--and the demands on its sewage system--are growing rapidly.