"Three nights now, so horrible you wake in the a.m. with a sore throat and burning eyes," Imperial Beach resident Sherrie Simmons said recently on social media about a horrible stench in the air. "Fix it, not good for our children, pets or us! Can't blame everything on TJ [Tijuana]."
The odor problem ongoing since early February has finally been explained, and it’s causing something of a political firestorm. Turns out a massive spill in Mexico of 143 million gallons of raw sewage into the Tijuana River started on least February 6th and apparently only stopped on February 23rd, according to a report by the International Boundary Water Commission (with the ironic acronym of IBWC) issued on the 24th.
The size and duration of this raw sewage spill is remarkable, with the smell detectable over a mile from the edge of the estuary, though related problems have been going on for decades, regularly causing beach closures in Imperial Beach after rainstorms.
“This is the largest spill of raw sewage into the Tijuana River in at least over a decade and possibly longer,” Imperial Beach mayor Serge Dedina said in an announcement on February 25th. Dedina called the IBWC’s “deafening silence” about the spill “exasperating and now possibly criminal” and repeated an earlier demand for the resignation of IBWC director Ed Drusina.
The Tijuana sewage-treatment infrastructure is designed to handle only everyday sewage flows and cannot handle the surge in sewage water flow from rainstorms, during which excess untreated wastewater gets diverted directly into the river.
Dedina said the Tijuana sewage plant also sometimes releases raw sewage into the river at other times, an act he said was illegal.
“Remember there is a difference between storm-related runoff and the deliberate dumping of raw sewage into the Tijuana when the river is flowing,” Dedina said on February 25th. “In recent years we have documented illegal sewage flows and then got them shut down even when authorities denied they were occurring…. This is why last July I demanded that Ed Drusina, the director of the International Boundary and Water Commission, be fired,” Dedina said in his announcement.
Dedina also tweeted a page of the IBWC report, which does not yet appear on the IBWC website, on Friday afternoon (February 24) and urged residents to complain to their federal representatives, such as congressman Juan Vargas and senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
The Tijuana river flows across the border into Imperial Beach seawaters and into the estuary and Border Field State Park; during flooding, water flows across major streets like Satellite Avenue.
Though the “end date” of the spill is listed in the IBWC report as February 23th, the stench was still so strong on that the 24th that one resident reported smelling it in his car even with the windows rolled up.
Many others have been complaining all month.
"You can't even keep your windows open at night,” Sherri Bailey said on social media in mid-February. “It's putrid!"
"It's like ammonia from toilet cleaner in our eyes," added Steph Pate.
"I blamed the Shell gas station this morning when vacuuming my car on Coronado [Avenue,] said local resident Crystal Sander. "It was so bad I was heaving from the smell. I thought it was the vacuums but realized the smell was everywhere."
The IBWC previously confirmed that the cause is "likely discharge of raw sewage into the [Tijuana] river in Mexico," according to the IBWC's Lori Kuczmanski. "We have requested the Mexican Section of the IBWC to investigate with their wastewater utility CESPT [Comisión Estatal de Servicios Públicos de Tijuana] to correct the problem."
John Jones contributed to this report.