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The lead story (subscription required) on the front page of The Wall Street Journal today takes a deep look at Bajagua Project LLC, the federal government’s plan to clean up Tijuana sewage that fouls Imperial Beach’s coastline.

The project would build a new sewage plant to double Tijuana’s sewage treatment capacity, but it is still unknown exactly how much it will cost U.S. taxpayers, who ultimately pay construction and operation costs.

The Journal piece delves into the political influence surrounding the project, noting that Bajagua has spent $585,000 on lobbying from 2001 through the first half of 2006. It makes several other interesting points:

  • “The project’s backers have missed important deadlines, and officials are questioning whether the company has taken vital steps it claims already were achieved, including obtaining commitments for financing, essential permits and land.”
  • “The federal agency in charge estimates the total cost to the U.S. will be between $580 million and $780 million.”
  • “At the Justice Department, a staff attorney who had backed the [International Boundary and Water Commission’s] opposition to Bajagua on legal grounds was replaced by a political appointee who reported to then-Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sansonetti, a longtime friend of [Vice President Dick] Cheney. Staff at the IBWC who had opposed the project were overruled or moved aside, say [former IBWC engineer Michael L.] Evans and other former IBWC staff.”

The Journal‘s Scot Paltrow also says:

Bajagua’s tale shows how plans for federal public-works projects could be diverted by a small group of lawmakers, who were able to push contracts toward big campaign contributors. It also highlights the political difficulties posed by the pollution flowing into the U.S. from burgeoning Mexican border cities. …

Local members of Congress blocked the IBWC’s plan to expand the San Ysidro (sewage) plant and pushed the Bajagua alternative. Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, whose district includes the San Ysidro plant, and Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray, from a nearby district, in 2000 sponsored a bill promoting Bajagua’s plan. A draft of the bill actually named Bajagua as the firm to do the work. When some lawmakers complained, the sponsors changed to wording that they hoped was so specific it would make Bajagua the only possible choice.

“We basically wanted one company,” Mr. Filner says. “So we had to find a way to do it within the law.”

Our most recent Bajagua story is here.

ROB DAVIS

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