SoCal Cities Have Standing to Sue for Tijuana Sewage Pollution

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on August 31, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a landmark decision, a federal district judge ruled that two Southern California cities and the San Diego County Unified Port District have standing to sue an international agency over polluted waters allegedly entering the United States under the Clean Water Act. While admitting that "the border will complicated matters," the judge believed the plaintiffs did indeed have standing to sue over continuous spills of sewage and other waste water into San Diego County.

On average, San Diego beaches have had sections of shoreline off-limits to swimmers for more than a third of the year over the last decade, due to these spills. The judge allowed the plaintiff to amend their complaint in order to add more facts, which will be necessary when deciding the case on its merits.

Polluted Water Crossing the Mexico-U.S. Border

The United States' side of the International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC) allows Veolia, a French international company, to use its facility to clean water coming in from Mexico before it enters into U.S. waterways, in fulfillment of the National Pollution and Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit it pulled in order to use the plant.

According to the judge, "Although Veolia is not the source of the pollution, the NPDES Permit under which it operates does require Veolia to work to contain and clean up wastewater that comes into the canyon collectors from Mexico. Failure to do so, as plaintiffs allege, contributes to the amount of wastewater that makes its way into the Tijuana River Valley and, eventually, the Pacific Ocean."

The judge made clear that this ruling was only to determine standing, and this has no bearing on the pollution case itself. Complicating matters is that the water entering the plant from Mexico is quite toxic. An April 2018, IBWC announced it found that more than $500 million in repairs are needed in Tijuana to sewage pipes and water collectors.

Arizona Ready to Sue the United States Federal Government Over Mexican Sewage Spill

An 8.5 mile pipeline that collects sewage in Arizona, then south to Mexico, and then back north to Arizona is about to burst ... again. Last year, this pipeline ruptured during monsoon season, spilling millions of gallons of sewage into the Nogales Wash over seven days, polluting a rare riparian valley.

The cost to fix the pipeline is about $80 million, and Mexico expects Arizona to pay, claiming they are better suited to shoulder the burden. Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality is suing the federal government for the funds, saying a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico 50 years ago created the pipeline, and therefore it's a federal bill.

The judge in the San Diego case gave the parties fourteen days to amend their filings, to include much needed evidence and data in order for the judge to decide on the case. Stay tuned to see how this border controversy resolves. If you're thinking of suing a federal agency, talk to an experienced governmental agency lawyer first, who can review whether you have standing and if your claim has merit.

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