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Friday, Dec. 1, 2006 | After nearly nine months of closed-door negotiations, Bajagua Project LLC, the controversial company with plans to treat Tijuana’s rogue sewage, stepped back into the public eye Thursday.
The International Boundary and Water Commission, a State Department agency that oversees U.S.-Mexico border water issues, announced the first step in Bajagua’s construction process, estimated to cost between $150 million and $200 million.
The commission said Bajagua, a private company, is ready to accept inquiries from companies interested in designing, building and operating the 59-million-gallon-a-day sewage plant, which will be built in Tijuana but be paid for by American taxpayers. The step, known as a request for qualifications, happens before companies make bids on the project. Once interested companies have submitted their names and qualifications, Bajagua, the commission and its Mexican counterpart will choose three companies that can make bids to design, build and operate the project.
Sally Spener, a commission spokeswoman, acknowledged that it is unusual for companies to submit qualifications to a private company.
“I wouldn’t say that this is a typical project because of the private sector involvement,” she said. “From that regard, nothing is typical about this project.”
The company is accepting the financial risk of the plant’s operation. It fronts the money to build the plant and gets repaid yearly by the U.S. government. If the treated sewage doesn’t meet U.S. federal clean-water standards, the company does not get reimbursed. Bajagua is prohibited from bidding on the design, construction and operation of the sewage plant.
One major uncertainty remains: How much the project will cost U.S. taxpayers, who will ultimately pay construction and operation costs. Bajagua spokesman Craig Benedetto was noncommittal Thursday about the yearly operating costs but has previously estimated them between $29 million and $39 million. He said those figures will be clear once bids are made early in 2007. A contract is expected by May 2007. The project must be constructed by September 2008 under the terms of a federal court decree.
Bajagua would double sewage treatment capacity in Tijuana, a city where estimates say at least 20 percent of the population lacks indoor plumbing. Those residents dump waste in the streets and when it rains, the sewage gets swept into the Tijuana River, north across the border into California and dumped into the Pacific Ocean. Last year, beach access in Imperial Beach was closed 83 days because of sewage pollution. Beaches south of Imperial Beach were still closed Thursday after Monday’s rainfall.
Bajagua officials say those closures will become rarer once their project is completed. Thursday’s announcement is another step toward that ideal, they say, while acknowledging that Bajagua is not a panacea.
“Those things (closures) are still going to happen, and they happen all over San Diego County just as they happen throughout coastlines,” Benedetto said. “We believe we’re going to take care of the majority of the problem.”
The project proposes a treatment plant that can handle 59 million gallons of sewage daily. That would boost the city’s treatment capacity by 34 million gallons a day – enough waste to fill 1,000 backyard swimming pools. The remaining capacity would be used to increase the filtration of sewage flowing through an existing treatment plant in the United States. That plant, which is located close to the border, can treat 25 million gallons of Mexican sewage daily before it is piped three miles offshore.
Controversy has surrounded Bajagua since it was first proposed. Bajagua was not bid competitively; it is led by officials who have donated tens of thousands to local political leaders; and it would not address the root cause of the sewage problem – the thousands of Tijuana homes lacking plumbing. 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 testament to the influence of political lobbying.
Critics charged that Thursday’s announcement offered little proof that Bajagua was making progress.
“They’re dragging this out,” said state Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego. “They announce these small steps forward with great fanfare. Any reputable project would have a site in place, would have finances in place. … They keep this endless circle of dribbling out tidbits of things that make it look like it’s going forward.”
The commission’s Spener, however, said Mexican authorities are expected to announce the chosen site soon. Benedetto said private-bond financing from Citibank is in place.
Saldaña criticized Bajagua’s closed-door negotiations in Mexico. She said the company needed to hold public meetings in Mexico and receive community feedback. Spener acknowledged that the project was emerging from a closed-door phase.
“Obviously the diplomatic process never has been a public process,” Spener said. “And when you’re dealing with contracting issues, there’s some sensitivity with that.”
One significant hurdle remains in the United States. Bajagua needs a permit from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board to discharge its treated waste. That permit application is pending.
Other Bajagua-related activities are still to come. The San Diego Foundation, a local philanthropic organization that funds several local environmental groups, hired environmental law attorney Cory Briggs in June to evaluate the Bajagua proposal. The project has fractured San Diego’s environmental community, which frequently presents a united front on issues.
Briggs said he was sidetracked by recent litigation, but hopes to complete his review by early January. He said he hopes to use his familiarity with Clean Water Act regulations – and his neutrality on Bajagua – to evaluate the project “in the context of fighting border sewage issues in the Tijuana region.”