After $92 million upgrade, plant has not met clean-water standards

September 28, 2011

San Diego Union Tribune
By Mike Lee

Steve Smullen, area operations manager of the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, walks on a passage way at the International Wastewater Treatment Plant in the Tijuana River Valley. The treatment plant was expanded in hopes of meeting U.S. Clean Water Act standards for the first time. — Howard Lipin


After more than $92 million in upgrades at a federal wastewater treatment plant in San Ysidro, the facility has yet to prove it can consistently meet Clean Water Act standards — and it’s been nearly 10 months since a court-ordered deadline.

The U.S. plant was built to process about 25 million gallons of sewage a day from Tijuana, treating it before it’s discharged into the ocean.

The agency that built it, the International Boundary and Wastewater Commission, was supposed to meet the clean-water standards by January. Officials say the plant started meeting them in August and needs more time to prove it with testing.

A court hearing on the plant’s status was pushed from April to May, then from May to September as the boundary commission and regulators sought to improve outflow. A judge this week granted five more months to show the facility is in compliance, lenience one environmental advocate found outrageous.

“We have a substandard plant doing substandard treatment while promising the world to everybody in the South Bay,” said Marco Gonzalez, an Encinitas-based lawyer who called for sanctions. “This is an absurd amount of time to be giving them. To me, this just speaks of the ongoing malaise of not taking this seriously.”

Gonzalez said the boundary commission should be fined and the money used for environmental cleanup projects in the heavily polluted Tijuana River Valley. The Clean Water Act allows for penalties of $37,500 a day but federal agencies generally are immune to fines by states for past violations. Gonzalez said the state could seek a special category of penalties if the boundary commission fails to meet future targets, though the state’s recent legal filings don’t show interest in that approach.

The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency that has sued over the issue, is more satisfied with progress at the facility.

“The plant is operational, is dealing with a complex and irregular influent and is treating volumes greater than mandated,” said Jimmy Smith, assistant executive officer of the water quality board. He said his agency expects the standards to be met shortly with refinements to plant operations.

He said in May, June and July that the plant discharged approximately 30 percent more solids to the ocean than allowed, resulting in a 66 percent greater demand for oxygen than permitted.

At the commission that built the plant, spokeswoman Sally Spener said the facility is new and operators have been adjusting formulas for how much oxygen to use in treatment and other variables. She noted the unpredictable nature of sewage coming from Tijuana, which is subject to swings in heavy metals and other pollutants.

The San Ysidro treatment facility was built in the late 1990s by the U.S. commission to allay decades of cross-border wastewater flows. From the start, it didn’t meet requirements for the secondary level of treatment required by the U.S. Clean Water Act because that couldn’t be achieved within the original $239 million budget.

Ten years ago, the regional water board joined the Surfrider Foundation in a successful lawsuit to force upgrades.

The upgraded plant met targets “during most times,” the head of the boundary commission told U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz in April.

Moskowitz then granted a request by state attorneys, who represent the regional board, to delay a court hearing until September so the boundary commission could show the facility is fully up to standards.

The issue of delays in meeting U.S. treatment standards is not new at the border treatment plant.

“We have repeatedly given them more time and it doesn’t work,” John Robertus, the regional water agency’s former executive officer, said in 2007.

At the water board this week, Smith maintained a measured tone and cited “optimism that problems will be worked out by the time February 2012 arrives.”


1997: The U.S. government’s wastewater treatment plant in San Ysidro starts operating with one level of treatment.

1999: Federal officials are unable to upgrade the facility so it can meet the mandated level of a second level of treatment.

2009: Federal officials said they will upgrade the San Ysidro plant with a $100 million “activated sludge” system on site.

Jan. 2011: The retrofit is completed.

Sept. 2011: State and federal agencies are granted nearly five more months to determine if the plant meets the standards.