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U.S. District Court Judge Barry Moskowitz today denied the federal government’s request for more time to improve a San Ysidro sewage treatment plant that treats 25 million gallons of Tijuana’s sewage daily.

The judge urged the International Boundary and Water Commission, a federal agency under the State Department, to provide a concrete plan for improving treatment at the San Ysidro facility. The commission built a sewage treatment plant in San Ysidro that treats Tijuana’s sewage. But from the moment it opened in 1997, the plant violated the federal Clean Water Act, because it didn’t remove enough waste from the sewage before pumping it into the Pacific Ocean.

The IBWC has been under a court order to improve the treatment by September 2008. While the IBWC says it cannot meet that goal, it offered an uncertain plan for how it would proceed if given more time. Moskowitz said he wanted certainty before granting an extension.

“The federal government cannot continue to violate the law,” Moskowitz told the IBWC. “Give me the project that will get it done, and I’ll give you the extension.”

The IBWC has two options for improving sewage treatment. It can:

  • Move forward with the plant proposed by the Bajagua Project LLC, a private San Marcos company that wants to build a treatment plant in Mexico to handle 59 million gallons of sewage daily. That would boost Tijuana’s treatment capacity by 34 million gallons a day.
  • Rely on Congress to either approve or reject $66 million for expansion of the existing plant. The House of Representatives has opposed the plan; the Senate has supported it. The two sides are supposed to work out their differences in a conference, though it hasn’t been scheduled.

Moskowitz signaled that the future of Bajagua rests in the hands of Congress and said he would not interfere.

If Congress approves the $66 million expansion, the IBWC will push forward with that. If it’s rejected, Bajagua would be the only obvious alternative that would allow the IBWC to meet its deadline (or an extended timeline).

The IBWC suspended its relationship with Bajagua earlier this year, which the federal commission’s attorney acknowledged was an unusual step with little legal justification.

Carlos Marin, the IBWC’s commissioner, said in an interview after the hearing that his agency would review Bajagua’s suspension in the “next couple of weeks.” He acknowledged that Congress’s decision about the $66 million plan would be a consideration, though he wouldn’t elaborate further.

“We’re going to look into it heavily,” Marin said. “We’re not going to ignore what was discussed here.”

ROB DAVIS

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