Environmentalists challenge government on sewage crisis created by South Bay Plant

On Behalf of | Apr 18, 2024 | Environmental Law, Firm News

A critical environmental conflict is unfolding. The South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant has released vast amounts of sewage and toxic chemicals into the Tijuana River and Pacific Ocean, a direct violation of its Clean Water Act permit. This issue has not only led to public health concerns but also frequent beach closures and damage to the delicate Tijuana River Estuary ecosystem.

Taking action against pollution

Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) and San Diego Coastkeeper (Coastkeeper) have taken a stand by filing a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California against the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and Veolia Water North America-West (Veolia). The lawsuit alleges that over the past five years, the facility located in the South Bay has consistently exceeded its permit limits, releasing harmful hazardous chemicals and sewage bacteria. These pollutants have ravaged the Tijuana River and surrounding coastal waters, posing severe public health risks and resulting in economic harm to communities like Imperial Beach and San Ysidro.

Demanding change and accountability

Coastkeeper and CERF aim to secure a court order to halt these illegal actions immediately. Further, they are pushing to penalize Veolia for its poor management of the facility. Veolia, a private entity, operates the treatment plant under contract with the IBWC.

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.”

A history of neglect and funding woes

IBWC, part of the U.S. Department of State, is responsible for managing border infrastructure. Since being built in 1990, the treatment plant has faced numerous maintenance and operational issues, resulting in persistent and severe coastal and estuarine pollution. Imperial Beach has suffered significantly, with its beaches closed for more than two years due to pollution discharged from the facility and additional raw sewage from Tijuana.

Previous litigation against IBWC in 2022 concerning pollution in the Pacific Ocean and Tijuana Estuary resulted in a $300 million EPA grant to upgrade and expand the treatment plant. Still, IBWC admitted under pressure in 2023 that the plant required at least $150 million in fixes to reach basic operational standards. Furthermore, anticipated expansions to meet future demands could cost close to $1 billion. Despite receiving an extra $103 million in federal funds in March 2024, the plant’s violations of its permit persist, and vast amounts of chemical sewage continue to pollute the Tijuana River Valley and affect local communities.

Seeking a cleaner future

This lawsuit highlights the ongoing struggle for environmental justice and accountability. It underscores the importance of maintaining infrastructure and the dire consequences of neglect. As the case progresses, it serves as a reminder of the necessity for vigilant oversight and the power of legal recourse in advocating for a cleaner, healthier environment for all.

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

Established in 2008 by a group of environmentally conscious surfers in Encinitas, CA, the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) stands firm in its commitment to environmental conservation. CERF’s mission is to safeguard, preserve, and defend the ecological integrity of the California coastline, its diverse habitats, and its invaluable natural resources. To explore CERF’s initiatives or for further information, please visit www.CERF.org. CERF is legally represented by the team at Coast Law Group, LLP, accessible at www.coastlaw.com.