“The company [is] owned by the engineers and Eduardo Aranda and Armando Miranda, brothers of the Secretary of State for Social Development, Jorge Aranda. [It] has in its [history] a series of works defects, among [them] the collapsed parking [lot] of the State Government in Mexicali, and a cracked bridge in Chaparral in Tijuana.”
Magdalena Cerda, the Environmental Health Coalition’s campaign director (and my driver during the site inspection in Tijuana), says, “They [the Ark of the Pacific] do work all over the state. There are many pending lawsuits, because they don’t deliver quality.”
In 1983, president Ronald Reagan…
…and Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid promised to cooperate in eliminating cross-border pollution. They worked out a progressive cleanup plan called the La Paz Agreement. Some of the results were impressive: in Tijuana, the agreement mobilized the removal of a veritable mountain of toxic lead left behind by a maquila car-battery recycler. In other areas of Mexico, air pollution was reduced and sewage treatment plants were constructed. But in spite of best intentions and the building of treatment plants in Tijuana, even more prodigious amounts of sewage continued to run downhill into the U.S.
In answer to the worsening conditions, the International Boundary Water Commission opened a sewage-treatment plant at San Ysidro in 1997. Steve Smullen is the area operations manager for the plant. He explains how it is that Tijuana sewage still infects the estuary and the Pacific. The commission’s plant, he says, treats TJ sewage only, but with this caveat: sometimes, during the dry season, water is diverted from the Tijuana River and sent to the treatment plant.
“But in the winter, after a big storm, the diversion capacity is exceeded and the water flows right out into the Pacific Ocean. Part of this is urban runoff,” Smullen says, addressing the fact that there are still numerous homes in Tijuana without sewer hookups. “At times, the water is fairly clean, and at other times, it is fairly dirty.” Still, he claims the situation has improved. “Ten years ago it was bad. The Mexican government built more sewage-treatment facilities, and now, a lot of what’s running down the Tijuana River is secondary effluent.”
Effluent is liquid waste or sewage discharged into a river or the sea. Secondary effluent is the term for treated effluent. It is not drinkable. It requires additional treatment just to make it usable for non-potable applications, such as irrigation.
Paloma Aguirre agrees that the water coursing through the Tijuana River channel is indeed secondary effluent. Aguirre is the U.S. Mexico Border Coastal Program manager at WILDCOAST. She calls from her office in Imperial Beach. “The problem is this,” she says. “There’s no place to put all the treated water. And there is no way to redirect it, either,” meaning various gray-water applications, “because the plumbing infrastructure doesn’t exist.” The solution for now, she says, is that municipal water trucks carry the effluent off-site and dump it.
“But they don’t have enough trucking capacity, so the majority of the effluent flows into the Tijuana River and down the channel, and that’s what you’re seeing.” There’s more: “I’ve done [maquila] site inspections myself, and I’ve seen water coming out of the factories being piped right into the Alamar. What is in it is anybody’s guess. We do know that the river is being impacted by industrial contaminants, but we don’t know by what. We don’t really know what’s in the water.”
This is a statement that I will hear over and over from the environmentalists in Mexico — that they don’t know what’s in the water, but they suspect that it’s bad.
Aguirre says there are only eight government inspectors for the maquilas. (Diane Takvorian will later confirm this number.) Aguirre has petitioned the Mexican water commission Conagua for water-quality information and for Rio Alamar project updates. “They just say no.” She says there is only one way left to get answers. “We will have to go to El Paso, where their headquarters are.”
Rick Gersberg, PhD, is a professor at San Diego State. He teaches courses in water quality, risk assessment, and hazardous-waste management. In the late 1990s, he was involved in water-testing in Tijuana and along Tecate Creek. He still handles heavy-metals testing for Coastkeeper. “If I ran a few tests on Rio Alamar and a few on the Tijuana River,” he says, “that could cost 10,000 dollars. That’s just the testing. Someone’s then gotta write the report.”
Toxicity tests are even more expensive. “That’s where you’re putting little critters into the water, like water fleas, and seeing how many of them die.”
In Mexico, the high costs of such testing means it doesn’t get done.
“I have seen fumes coming from the ground…
…at the Rio Alamar where toxic materials have been dumped,” says Oscar Romo, 64, the watershed coordinator of the Tijuana River National Estuary Research Reserve. He has been interviewed many times over the years about pollution and flooding and the dark side of Tijuana’s municipal sewers. He is aware of the original plans to restore habitat along the Alamar and to eco-channelize the creek. “But that project was abandoned,” he says. “The desire to control flooding, and to gain access to land to develop the highway, and to gain land to develop to make money for the city and the state replaced the old plan. Eco-channelization required a bigger footprint, and it cost more money.”
He describes a politicized hotbed fraught with complexities. “Different people were claiming ownership of the [Rio Alamar] land, and in many cases, they were bringing many loads of trash to fill in the riverbed. The Paleo-channel was being filled at a pretty fast rate by industry, and by developers.” This is a big business, he says, in particular for a notoriously radical Mexican movement known as antorcha campesina, or the “farmers’ torch.”
“This group is famous for what they’ve been doing. They take land from the government by invading. This is a huge business. This group is probably the most wealthy in the country. They claim they’re turning the land into viable real estate. They have been taking land in the Alamar River by that process, by dumping. And they were making money by charging other people to dump. If you go to the landfill, it costs what, 60 dollars per ton? At the Rio Alamar, they were charging only 5 dollars per ton.”