In a March 1, 2017 image, a woman walks along a beach that was closed by the authorities because of sewage pollution in Coronado, California. Gregory Bull AP Photo

For more than two weeks, a stench of feces, ammonia, and detergent flooded the atmosphere of the far southwest of the continental United States. People in the area had contacted government offices without getting answers.

Finally, an official released a report that triggered a furious reaction: Sewerage repair works in Tijuana, Mexico, caused about 542 million liters (143 million gallons) of wastewater to be spilled into the United States and the Pacific Ocean for 18 days. A Mexican official questioned such claims on Friday after a week of public outcry.

The city of Imperial Beach was most affected by what Mayor Serge Dedina called “the tsunami of sewage.”

During a raucous public hearing Thursday night, angry residents shouted at government officials and demanded answers. They criticized that information had been hidden for too long and they were fed up with the frequent problems with the drainage of Mexico that litters the beaches and represents a danger to their health.

It is unknown who was aware of the issue, so it is also questioned whether the appropriate communication channels were used to alert the public.

The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), a binational agency that deals with border disputes over water and other issues, promised on Thursday to file a report in the next 30 days. CILA explained that its analysis will determine how much waste water and how much time was shed and identify errors in communication.

Steve Smullen, CILA area operations manager in the San Diego area who provided preliminary estimates of the spill said “a US Border Patrol agent alerted him to the stench on Feb. 6 and he quickly reported To his Mexican counterpart”. According to US officials, they received “no response until February 23, a day before the public announcement”.

Roberto Espinosa, CILA’s office representative in Tijuana, said “during the community forum in Imperial Beach that he immediately began to question” but that the “Mexican agency responsible for solving the problem did not give him answers”.

“There was a collapse in information crossing between the operator and us,” Espinosa said. “It’s very unfortunate and that’s what hurts us the most.”

The Tijuana Public Utilities Commission, an agency that made the repairs, reported that the wastewater spill lasted only from February 1 to 4 and that the flow across the border was due to rainwater. Miguel Lemus, the director of the agency stated that “the preliminary calculation of US officials was too high” and “that wastewater was most likely stagnant in the United States, which produced the stench”.

In an interview, Lemus said that he should have informed the CILA representatives in Mexico. He added that he hoped that the United States and Mexico would develop better communication protocols in order to avoid “misunderstanding as they are now giving information that is not quite correct.”


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