Navy SEALs have been forced to change their training, and Border Patrol agents have been sent to the hospital suffering festering rashes from sewage seeping out of Mexico and into Southern California, according to agents and officials who say both the U.S. and Mexico need to begin taking the matter seriously.
The ongoing spill, which one agent likened to a “chemical weapons” attack, has created “no-go” zones for the Border Patrol, hindering their efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs that are still coming across.
The latest spurt came late last week when Mexican officials reported a suicide attempt at a pump station in Tijuana and had to shut the facility down. The suicide attempt was averted, but the shutdown caused sewage to flow into the Tijuana River, leeching 330,000 gallons of wastewater into the U.S.
Hours later, a “miscommunication” between the U.S. and Mexican border commissions led to another smaller spill, with 3,800 gallons seeping into the river.
“As crude and nasty as this sounds, this is not American sewage, this is Third World sewage,” said Christopher Harris, a Border Patrol agent and director of legislative and political affairs for Local 1613, the union for agents in the sector.
“There’s whole areas now that are biologically and chemically impacted, just like if you had a biological or chemical attack. There are areas that are no-go zones,” he said.
The sewage has been a problem for decades, despite tens of millions of dollars in spending and claims by both the U.S. and Mexico that they take the problem seriously. Locals had said things were improving, but a massive spill in February — the worst in a decade — dumped perhaps 230 million gallons of sewage, undercutting the optimism.
Both technical problems and big storms can overload Tijuana’s capabilities.
Agent Harris said the sewage picks up chemical pollutants, heavy metals and poisonous salts, in addition to biological waste. He ticked off affected areas with evocative names: Goat’s Canyon, Yogurt Canyon and Smuggler’s Gulch, which in the 1990s became the poster child for an out-of-control border.
A rough map of the no-go areas includes several square miles of American soil. The beach stretching for more than a mile north of the U.S.-Mexico line is also a danger zone, covering Border Field State Park and parts of Imperial Beach.
Staying out of those areas means agents are ceding important ground to smugglers — and it’s no guarantee of avoiding the sewage since migrants still cross through it, and are often later caught. Agent Harris recalled catching two men covered with black oily mud, which, despite his precautionary leather gloves, got onto his arms.
“Literally within seconds I had this giant rash growing on my arm,” he said. The worry, he said, is that “it’s going to be an Agent Orange” situation, where the effects of the sewage aren’t known until years later.
“A real big fear for the union is that our guys down the road will suffer from some kind of diseases or genetic changes, or cancer, or whatever,” he said.
Scientists are studying the Tijuana River Valley, both for health hazards and environmental dangers. But there’s been a silence on the part of major environmental groups, who have in recent years put political agendas involving immigration ahead of their ecological missions, Agent Harris said.
A number of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have weighed in, demanding action from the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said he’s heard personally from Border Patrol agents who’ve been made sick by the sewage, and said military training — including by Navy SEAL teams — has had to be “suspended because of the harmful conditions and risk” of the ongoing spills.
“In other words, this sewage spill is unquestionably adversely affecting our ability to respond to national security priorities,” the congressman, a former Marine officer, wrote.
He said it’s time for the U.S. to demand better from Mexico, and not settle for demands of more cash from America’s southern neighbor. Mr. Hunter said the U.S. government should set real, measurable benchmarks Mexico must meet, and said direct involvement by the EPA and State Department would “ensure that Mexico is motivated” to do something.
“Far too often, our expectations regarding Mexico on these types of issues are lowered for no other reason than hoping a ‘provide money’ approach will solve the problem,” he wrote.
Indeed, the two sides don’t even always agree on the scope of the problem.
U.S. officials initially estimated the massive February spill at 140 million gallons, then boosted the estimate to 230 million gallons over several weeks. Meanwhile, a Mexican official told The San Diego Union-Tribune it was just 30 million gallons, while KGTV in San Diego reported a Mexican official told them it was 9 million gallons.
A final report in April put the spill at 28 million gallons over four days. The report blamed heavy winter rains for overloading Tijuana’s sewers. Utility workers tried to divert the flow into other pipelines but lacked the pumps to handle the flow, sending the wastewater flowing into the Tijuana River and over the border.
American officials said Mexico didn’t inform the U.S. about the February spill until a couple of weeks after it began.
The U.S. State Department brushed aside questions about the situation, saying only that it received the complaints from Congress and would respond to them.
The EPA, for its part, told The Washington Times that it’s trying to figure things out among all the parties that get involved in this kind of thorny border dispute.
But in a lengthier response to some members of Congress, the EPA said San Diego should be happy the spill wasn’t worse. The agency said that could have happened if the agency hadn’t already spent tens of millions of dollars over the last few decades on improvements.
Some $53 million has been shipped south of the border to Mexico, where the U.S. has actually footed part of the bill for several Mexican wastewater treatment projects, the agency said. Current plans include repairs, construction of nine new manholes and new wastewater connections for 525 homes in Mexico that spew their sewage into canyons and open spaces, the EPA said.
Ricardo Alday, an official with Mexico’s foreign ministry in the U.S., said his government is going through the appropriate channels to address the problem.
“We have been working together with our U.S. counterparts for some time on this issue, including through the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and Mexico’s Comision Internacional de Limites y Aguas (CILA), and we are committed to continue doing so at the federal level, as well as with the relevant local and state governments to resolve this issue,” Mr. Alday said in a statement issued by the Mexican Embassy.
The IBWC didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Times, but in an official notice earlier this month, the commission said it was working on a better notification system.
The Border Patrol said it’s following the spill and its effects on agents.
“The health and safety of agents is of paramount importance to the U.S. Border Patrol,” said Supervisory Agent Mark Endicott. “San Diego Sector is monitoring this matter and will appropriately address any health-related issues reported to the agency by its personnel.”
Years ago, Border Patrol agents won a class-action lawsuit against the government protesting unsafe conditions. As part of the settlement, the agency agreed never to order agents to enter a sewage-seepage area.
Agent Harris, meanwhile, speculated that there are multiple reasons for Mexico’s slow response, including the possibility that some on the southern side of the border don’t mind the problems persisting.
“This area, they’re prepping the battle space. We might not be able to build a wall there because it’s so polluted,” he said.
President Trump’s new budget released last week calls for 14 miles of replacement border fence to be erected in the San Diego Sector, though officials in Washington won’t say exactly where it will be going.
Agent Harris said Mexican officials demand to be treated as a sovereign nation but fail to live up to treaties and other international standards.
“You’re either a sovereign nation-state and you live up to these treaties, or you’re a failed nation-state and we treat you accordingly,” he said.