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California and the West

Sewage Plant Proposal Stirs More Debate Over Spills

Sanitation: Tijuana treatment facility is backed by two congressmen. But some question the project's feasibility and push construction of another plant in U.S.


SAN DIEGO — A proposed plant that would turn Tijuana sewage into clean water and profits--a notion derided by critics as far-fetched--has won a wave of political support and has renewed debate over how to cope with the long-standing problem of waste that spills into the United States.

The proposed plant, called Bajagua, is being promoted by a group of U.S. investors and enjoys backing from two San Diego-area congressmen. Reps. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) and Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego) are behind a bill that calls for talks between the United States and Mexico on the sewer matter and authorizes the U.S. government to strike a deal with the project's backers to build and run a plant in Tijuana for treating up to 50 million gallons each day.

The measure won House approval and awaits action in the Senate as part of an environmental measure.

Uncontrolled sewage, millions of gallons of which flow north across the border via the Tijuana River or spill into the Pacific Ocean, has long been one of the border's most vexing environmental problems. Two years ago, the two countries opened a joint plant on the U.S. side near San Ysidro that partially treats up to 25 million gallons of the sewage per day that escapes Tijuana's overtaxed system.

The purpose of a new plant would be to further treat that sewage so it meets U.S. clean-water standards for discharge into the Pacific Ocean. Effluent from the binational plant now is in violation. The plant would also be built with extra capacity to treat other sewage from Tijuana.

Though the water would be clean enough to be poured into the ocean, proponents of the new plant hope instead to sell it south of the border for industrial use and some irrigation, but not for drinking. They compare the proposed $83-million Tijuana plant to maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories that turn components into televisions, stereos and other products for export.

"We're taking a product--bringing it back into Mexico--and improving the value," said Jim Simmons, a principal in the partnership, called Agua Clara. "The difference is we're not sending it back into the United States."

Skeptics include officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Boundary and Water Commission, which under terms of an agreement with Mexico have made plans to build their own facility on the U.S. side. Design work is well underway on a series of open-air ponds to further treat sewage next to the binational plant. Officials say shifting gears in favor of the Bajagua now could derail years of preparations.

The city of Imperial Beach, long tormented by overflow sewage from Mexico, is also resisting the Bajagua project on grounds that it could take years to complete. City officials, who favor the competing U.S. plan, are skeptical as well of the profit-making potential of the proposed Tijuana plant.

"It means more delays in secondary treatment," said Mayda Winter, an Imperial Beach City Council member. "We'll continue receiving for three, five, seven years sewage in the water off our shores."

Signals from Mexico have been mixed. Tijuana Mayor Francisco Vega de Lamadrid has endorsed Bajagua, and its sponsors say they have won a favorable reaction from Vicente Fox, the nation's president-elect. But the official in charge of Mexico's section of the boundary commission has said his government does not now view the Bajagua plan as viable.

All agree that another treatment plant is needed--on one side of the border or the other--to further clean waste emerging from the binational plant so that it can be legally discharged into the ocean.

That effluent is dumped through a giant "outfall" pipe 3 1/2 miles off Imperial Beach. The U.S. government is under orders to provide the so-called secondary treatment by December, but it is clear that will not happen. Complicating matters, construction would first require Congress to lift a 1993 cap limiting building expenses for the binational plant to $239 million.

Plans by the EPA and boundary commission to dig treatment ponds next to the binational plant--at an estimated cost of about $54 million--have met noisy resistance from residents of the nearby Tijuana River Valley who fear foul odors and breeding of mosquitoes.

The Bajagua proposal presents possible relief for valley residents and an appealing alternative for Filner and Bilbray, whose districts join along the border.

Besides moving the waste processing into an unpopulated section of Tijuana, sponsors say Bajagua would offer a bonus: reclaimed water for fast-growing Baja California, which faces possible rationing in coming years. Unsold water would be piped back to the United States for discharge at sea.

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