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Sewage spill south of the border.

CA - Coastal Commission to ask Biden to declare border sewage crisis an emergency

The binational agency that operates the aging federal wastewater treatment plant at the U.S.-Mexico border said declaring the sewage crisis an emergency to expedite the facility's expansion may no longer be effective.

But the California Coastal Commission said Wednesday that all steps are needed to remedy the uncontrolled discharge of raw sewage and other pollutants as soon as possible.

Commissioners approved sending President Joe Biden a letter urging him to do whatever it takes to accelerate projects aimed at improving the plant, which has allowed Tijuana sewage to foul South County shorelines. They also asked that he suspend regulations preventing the Department of State's International Boundary and Water Commission, which manages the plant, from receiving money from non-federal entities.

"We believe these steps are necessary due to the rapidly accelerating scope and severity of the pollution crisis as well as the slow pace of IBWC's response," read their letter.

The South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant continuously takes more wastewater from Mexico than it was designed to handle. In 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a plan to use $300 million allocated in late 2019 to double the facility's capacity. The project has been part of a binational effort to significantly curb the wastewater spills wreaking havoc on South County communities. The unspent funds are insufficient to complete the expansion because of deferred maintenance that Tropical Storm Hilary worsened.

Wednesday's meeting comes after the Commission asked the IBWC last month to return with answers as to why the San Ysidro-based treatment plant had fallen into such a state of disrepair, why the $300 million had not yet been used to expand the facility and if an emergency declaration would assist in advancing the project more quickly.

Maria-Elena Giner, an IBWC commissioner, said the project has already cleared the lengthy federal hurdles that are typical before the design and construction phases. It is now ready to start soliciting proposals.

"At this point, my experience with these emergency declarations is that you're able to waive certain processes and we've pretty much gone through all the processes that we could potentially waive," she said.

Instead, she added, a continued push to get supplemental funding directly to the IBWC would be indispensable for helping complete the project and future ones, including a new Tijuana River diversion system that the EPA had wanted to break ground on this year.

Paloma Aguirre, Imperial Beach mayor and Coastal commissioner, said an emergency declaration would help waive the bidding and procurement process for the diversion project. It could also help the IBWC start accepting money, such as grants or funding agreements, from non-federal entities.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on Wednesday approved authorizing the IBWC to accept outside funds" to study, design, construct, operate, or maintain wastewater treatment works, water conservation projects, or flood control works, and related structures." The changes will require approval from Congress before it can head to the president's desk, causing further delays in completing the work.

"There is a need for a waiver, an executive order, a presidential declaration, whatever we want to call it, to waive all these processes and to bypass that so the IBWC can receive the necessary funding to address the emergency that we're currently in," Aguirre said.

Biden has asked that Congress grant an additional $310 million in emergency spending to fix and expand the treatment plant, but lawmakers have yet to consider it. He has not publicly commented on whether he would declare a state of emergency or take additional steps.

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