To get under the skin of anyone affiliated with Bajagua LLC, the controversial project designed to clean up Tijuana’s overflowing sewage problem, you need only say two words: Lori Saldaña.

“She’s an outright liar,” says Craig Benedetto, Bajagua’s spokesman.

“She hasn’t taken the time to research the issue before she goes off,” says Gary Sirota, an attorney who’s consulted for Bajagua.

For decades, a rainstorm in Tijuana has spelled closure for beaches in south San Diego. Bajagua aims to more than double the treatment capacity of Tijuana’s sewage infrastructure with hopes of reducing beach closures. When the slightest rainfall washes through Tijuana – even just a quarter-inch – it collects garbage, human waste and heavy metals. The putrid stew then gets washed into the Tijuana River and ends up in the Pacific Ocean.

Bajagua’s proposed treatment plant would be built in Mexico and boost daily wastewater collection capacity by 34 million gallons, while improving the quality of 25 million gallons already collected, treated and discharged in the ocean.

Any conversation about the project’s merits inevitably turns to Saldaña, a 47-year-old Democrat, elected to her first State Assembly term in November 2004. Her district stretches from Point Loma to Tierrasanta – areas not directly affected by the border sewage problem. But she’s been a vocal opponent of federal plans to clean up border water for more than 12 years, a role that has continued since her election.

“My motivation has always been to clean up the water at the border,” the assemblywoman says. “I did it as an appointee, as a volunteer. I’m continuing to do it now, I just happen to be an elected official.”

Her supporters admire her work. To them, she is Lori Saldaña, environmental crusader. Her detractors loathe it. To them, she is Lori Saldaña, naysayer and political grandstander.

As the debate again heats up – last week the federal government signed a contract for Bajagua to build the project, estimated to cost between $150 million and $200 million – Saldaña has again thrust herself into the fray. In the wide-ranging political war of words about the controversial sewage plant, Saldaña and her opponents appear to harbor the most vitriol for each other.

“Lori is a thorn in their side,” says Serge Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast, an Imperial Beach-based environmental group. “Lori knows border issues better than anybody. You’re not going to out-argue her. She argues, she goes right head-to-head with them.”

She has a long list of objections to the project. A sampling:

– Bajagua exclusively negotiated terms for building the treatment plant in Mexico and was awarded a sole-source contract – unlike the vast majority of most government contracts.

– The company’s political lobbying. James Simmons, the project’s managing member, gave more than $30,000 to campaigns of state and federal officials between 2000 and 2006.

– A private company should not profit from a public-health issue.

“They are the biggest corporate welfare queens on the border,” Saldaña says. “The only thing they put money into is not clean water and not public health but consultants to buy more time to put more pollution into our beaches.”

Bajagua LLC and Saldaña. They are mirror images, albeit contentious ones. She calls them obfuscators. They label her an obstructionist. When Bajagua officials said they had a contract with the federal government, Saldaña disputed whether it was a contract at all.

Now her attention has turned to the nuanced regulations that underlie the Bajagua project. She wants to strengthen them, addressing the way Bajagua’s treated sewage and wastewater enters California’s coastal waters. It is the latest in a series of roadblocks she has tried to put in front of the project.

Bajagua will pay to construct the plant – estimated to cost $150 million to $200 million. It will then recoup profits through the plant’s continued operation. If the water it treats and discharges in the ocean fails to meet U.S. clean water standards, Bajagua LLC doesn’t get paid.

Saldaña says that’s not good enough. She doesn’t think California environmental agencies will have enough oversight of a plant built in Mexico. She says legislation is needed to correct that.

Benedetto, Bajagua’s spokesman, dismisses the proposed legislation as “ludicrous.” Bajagua will need a permit to discharge treated sewage into the Pacific, he says, a process clearly regulated by the State Water Resources Control Board.

“She couldn’t change the law to make it any more enforceable or any more stringent,” Benedetto says. “She’s not after cleaner water, a better situation. She’s after stopping Bajagua – and that’s all she’s doing. We’ll give the facts and she’ll say anything to dispute those facts – right or wrong. And in this case there’s a lot of wrong.”

Gary Sirota, an environmental lawyer who consults for Bajagua, questions Saldaña’s tactics. She has brought the issue to a “boiling froth,” he says, without raising any viable objections. He says she is only delaying cleaner coastal water. For 70 years, no federal or state agency has stemmed the tide of sewage crossing the border, Sirota says, but the private sector now can.

“From an environmentalist’s standpoint, I don’t care what it costs, I don’t care who makes money,” Sirota says. “What I care about is: Fix it, now. And the rest of this is politics.”

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