Communities in US and Mexico at Risk From Sewage, Pollution and Disease

Imperial Beach, California — U.S. Border Patrol Agent Christopher Harris steers his truck along the hilly road next to the border fence separating this beach community in the extreme southwest corner of the U.S. from Tijuana, Baja California’s largest city.

On a late November afternoon, Harris tours three different canyons along the border. At the bottom of each canyon, a ribbon of dark wastewater originates in Tijuana and flows into the wetlands of the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Drainage to Pacific Tijuana Slough. (Photo: John Dougherty)Drainage to Pacific Tijuana Slough. (Photo: John Dougherty)

No one in the United States is certain whether the effluent is coming from Tijuana’s failing wastewater-treatment system or if it is illegally dumped in the canyon creek beds in Tijuana. On this day, it flowed through dry creek beds, where Harris says it hadn’t rained in many weeks.

The saltwater estuary has long been a hotspot for drug smuggling and human trafficking. Harris says Border Patrol agents conducting patrols and apprehensions of immigrants are routinely exposed to contaminated mud and effluent. Harris, the secretary for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613, says more than 80 agents have suffered from contamination, injuries and illnesses — including encountering chemicals that sometimes eat right through their boots.

Harris holds up a pair of fairly new work boots and says they belong to an agent who suffered chemical burns on his feet after the rubber soles were melted by chemicals in the effluent.

Melted boots. (Photo: John Dougherty)Melted boots. (Photo: John Dougherty)“We’re breathing it in,” Harris says. “It gets in your mouth, you’re ingesting it. It gets in your mucous membranes. We’ve had people with what they believe is methane burns to the lungs.”

During heavy rains there’s no doubt that Tijuana’s wastewater-treatment system routinely fails, sending hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage flowing into the Tijuana River from Mexico and then into the U.S. The floods of sewage force health…

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