Friday, June 2, 2006 | The masked man emerged from nowhere on the Coronado beach. He forced his way amid some 50 wetsuit-clad children and demanded an end to their surf contest.

His name was Bajagua, El Polluter. And he was not a popular guy.

But from the surf, a savior emerged. El Tiburon, Defensor de los Mares. (The Shark, Defender of the Seas.) He rallied the children. Together, they drove off Bajagua, shouting as he scurried away. “Get out of here, kook!” they yelled, according to a news release from Wildcoast, Imperial Beach-based environmental group, the event’s sponsor.

The scene is just one more sign that the debate over a controversial plan to boost Tijuana’s sewer capacity that has fractured San Diego’s environmental community is far from finished. The green community, which often presents a united front, is locked in a bitter in-fight over Bajagua Project LLC’s plans to build a $150 million to $200 million sewage treatment plant in Tijuana.

Two weeks after the comic-book scene, Wildcoast was at it again, erecting a ruby-red Wildcoast billboard in Imperial Beach that warns: “Bajagua=Scam.” The same message has popped up on stickers found in a bathroom of at least one area surf park.

Wrestlers, a billboard and stickers – all part of a coordinated Wildcoast campaign – have exacerbated the already-strained relationships of the local environmental community.

The San Diego Foundation, a philanthropic organization that doled out $41 million last year, has now stepped into the fray. Hoping to calm rhetoric on an issue that continues to divide the very environmentalists it helps fund, the foundation has commissioned an independent review of border sewage issues.

Bajagua would double sewage treatment capacity in Tijuana, a city where at least 20 percent of the population lacks indoor plumbing. The ensuing sewage runoff from waste dumped in the streets threatens public health and water quality on both sides of the border.

But Bajagua was not bid competitively; is led by officials who have donated tens of thousands to local political leaders; and would not put plumbing in the thousands of homes that lack it.

Depending upon whom you ask, Bajagua will help clean up a pollution problem that has plagued the region for decades. Or it will be a colossal waste of money, clean up nothing and stand as a testament to the influence of political lobbying.

The San Diego Foundation report aims to sort out facts from those two polar-opposite sides of local environmentalists.

“We have no expectation that it’s going to show either side to be right or wrong,” said Bob Kelly, the foundation’s president and CEO. “We’re not out for that. It’s just to get better information, dig deeper and see what comes out of it.”

The environmental community is still fresh on the heels of a split over the environmental concessions of TransNet, a 2004 countywide ballot measure that increased the sales tax a half-cent to fund transportation projects. It has again fractured over Bajagua.

On one side is Marco Gonzalez, an Encinitas environmental attorney who represents the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego chapter. Gonzalez touts Bajagua as the best option for cleaning up a pollution source that kept beaches closed 83 days last year in Imperial Beach.

On the other side is Serge Dedina, Wildcoast’s executive director. Dedina denounces Bajagua as “a campaign of legal bribery to basically hijack the political system.”

And somewhere in the middle is Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental organization focused on improving water quality. He has remained neutral, saying he hoped to be a calming voice of reason in a stormy debate.

All three groups have received funding from the foundation. Since 2002, Coastkeeper has received $390,000 in grants; Wildcoast has gotten $281,000; Surfrider has received $7,425.

“We never want to see the groups that we work with – who care passionately about the community – get at odds with each other,” Kelly said. “We may disagree, but we need to keep it at a very collegial level. And sometimes we can provide some data or information that can clarify the situation better. And that’s what this is all about.”

Cory Briggs, a San Diego-based environmental attorney, will lead the review, which is expected to take about a month and be released publicly once complete. He has toured Tijuana and planned to meet Friday with Bajagua representatives.

“I’m really at the beginning,” Briggs said. “We don’t know whether this is going to be a report about Bajagua or border sewage with Bajagua as an obvious component of that.”

Bajagua spokesman Craig Benedetto said he harbors concerns about the report’s objectivity, noting that Dedina’s wife, Emily Young, works at the foundation.

But, he said, “we’ll wait to see the outcome of Mr. Briggs’ work.”

It isn’t clear whether the report will ameliorate the rhetorical vitriol among environmentalists. Coastkeeper’s Reznik said he will likely take a stand based on the report’s outcome. Kelly said the report will not bind any organization the foundation supports.

In the meantime, Gonzalez and Dedina are left with their feud. Their rhetoric quieted after a February story detailed their divisions. But it has again gained momentum. Pointing to the wrestlers and that ruby-red billboard, Gonzalez said he’s had enough. He has challenged Dedina to debate Bajagua’s merits.

“My goal is for the Imperial Beach community to understand the full argument,” Gonzalez said, “because I don’t think Wildcoast is doing the community service by giving them sound bites and hiding the facts.”

Dedina has not agreed to the debate. Asked whether he’d face off with Gonzalez, he said: “This is not about me or anybody else in the environmental community. This is about making sure our community is heard in the larger political system.”

Is that a no?

“Like I said, this is not about me and Marco,” Dedina said. “This is not personal. We’re engaging our community.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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