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Over 3,200 People Ask for Emergency Declaration for Border Pollution Crisis

On Tuesday, October 10th, Surfrider Foundation submitted 3,243 signatures from concerned residents in San Diego County and beyond to Governor Newsom and President Biden.  The petition calls for an emergency declaration to address the decades-old public health and environmental justice crisis at the US/Mexico border caused by heavily polluted transboundary flows in the Tijuana River Watershed.  

Every day, millions of gallons of untreated sewage, dangerous chemicals, and trash flow across the US/Mexico border through the watershed.  Since October 2018, the International Boundary and Water Commission has documented more than 100 billion gallons of cross-border flows carrying toxic waste through the Tijuana River with more than 37 billion gallons of polluted water crossing the border this year alone.  Additionally, untreated sewage from the San Antonio de los Buenos treatment plant is carried up the coast during the summer.  

The toxic flows impair ecosystems and open space, harm marine species, force beach closures throughout South San Diego County and cause widespread illnesses on both sides of the border.  Research from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography linked 34,000 illnesses in 2017 to water pollution along the Imperial Beach coastline.  Not only do the flows pose serious hazards to people who enjoy recreating in the ocean and visiting the beach, they also threaten the livelihoods of those whose jobs depend on clean water and beaches.  The health and safety of lifeguards and first responders are directly impacted by the toxic waste when they have to perform rescues and dives.  U.S. Border Patrol and Navy personnel also conduct activities in contaminated environments in South San Diego County.  Several Border Patrol agents have reported getting sick from entering toxic water, even contracting flesh-eating bacteria. 

San Diego County’s southernmost beach has been closed for over 670 consecutive days and counting.  This is a grave public health crisis and one of the most significant environmental justice emergencies in the county.   


After years of advocacy from frontline communities and organizations, progress was finally made in 2020 with federal funding allocated through the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as well as the US Border Water Infrastructure Grant Program (BWIP) to develop and advance the EPA Comprehensive Infrastructure Solution (CIS).  The CIS is designed to both increase plant capacity and the broader distribution system to be able to adequately handle wastewater flows and is expected to reduce over 75% of contaminated flows year-round and 95% of beach closures due to water quality impairments in summer months. 

This summer, however, it was revealed that the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant (ITP) is in a state of extreme disrepair after years of deferred maintenance.  The cost for rehabilitating the ITP means that $350 million that was allocated by Congress for the expansion of the ITP and other parts of the CIS now has to be used for repairs, leaving an even larger funding gap.  The project is now so far backlogged, it is going to take several years just to get where we thought we were in order to implement the CIS.  Frontline communities cannot wait that long.  This is indeed an emergency that requires immediate action.

We appreciate Governor Newsom’s advocacy on behalf of South San Diego County communities, however, community members remain in a constant state of danger.  Frontline communities need immediate relief from regular exposure to harmful waste and the complete toxification of their home.  A federal emergency declaration could access additional funding, resources, and interagency coordination required to advance solutions, as well as cut through years of red tape, streamlining lengthy bureaucratic processes.

President Biden has the authority to declare an emergency whenever he deems public health and safety in his jurisdictions to be threatened.  His response to Tropical Storm Hilary, merely weeks ago, was swift, thorough, and effective.  Unfortunately, residents in Imperial Beach and nearby communities are living with a tropical storm of toxic waste every day.  It’s in the air, it’s in their homes, it’s affecting every aspect of community life and wellbeing.  If ever there was a public health and environmental justice emergency, this would be it.” - Sarah Davidson, Clean Border Water Now Manager, Surfrider Foundation 

"We have no idea how long it will be before the water here is safe and coast accessible.  We ask President Biden to declare the emergency we all know exists.  We appreciate Governor Newsom shining a light on this issue, but that alone is not enough.  We are desperate for more - more legislative solutions and more work on the ground to finally fix these problems and protect our communities.” - Bethany Case, Imperial Beach Resident and Clean Border Water Now Lead Volunteer

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We continue to appeal to Governor Newsom and President Biden to do everything in their power to provide immediate relief and ongoing investment in solutions to the grave public health and environmental justice crisis harming communities within their jurisdictions.