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Friday, April 25, 2008 | A highly awaited Congressional investigation into two plans to improve inadequate sewage infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border was released Thursday, and it landed with a considerable thud.

The independent Government Accountability Office compared federal plans to improve sewage treatment levels at an existing San Ysidro plant to a proposal offered by the Bajagua Project LLC, a private San Marcos company, which wants to build a major sewage treatment plant in Tijuana.

The GAO concluded that Bajagua was a more uncertain plan that would cost more. But beyond that, the report offered few definitive answers. It did not assess either project’s benefits, did not conclude which project would be more cost-effective and did not determine which would be built more timely.

The study was welcomed by Bajagua’s opponents and criticized by its supporters. But it also drew an assault from two environmental activists who have remained neutral on the Bajagua proposal. They criticized its incompleteness, saying the region had missed a major chance to determine which project was in fact the best.

“It was a golden opportunity to get it right, to study the whole issue, to let the premier research agency look at it,” said Cory Briggs, an environmental attorney who studied the issue in a white paper released last year. “Instead they opted for a quickie report. It’s such a joke of a report it doesn’t even rise to the level of a rubber stamp.”

The report notes that expanding the San Ysidro plant would cost $331 million over 20 years, compared to the $539 million cost of Bajagua (the GAO did not verify either cost estimates). While Bajagua’s opponents seized on the higher cost, the Bajagua project would be larger, offering the potential to treat 59 million gallons of sewage each day — enough sewage to fill the Empire State Building every five days. Upgrading the existing plant would not expand its 25-million-gallon-a-day capacity.

“If you’re going to say the cost is different, at least make a fair comparison,” Briggs said. “It’s not even a fair comparison.”

The report, composed in three months, acknowledges that investigators ignored several major questions, including the underpinning of the debate over border sewage — whether either proposal would have any effect on the untreated sewage that washes down Tijuana’s hillsides and into the Pacific Ocean, routinely closing beaches as far north as Coronado. In a debate fundamentally about water quality, the two plants’ impacts on water quality were not addressed.

The border sewage problem is two-fold. The existing San Ysidro plant that collects Tijuana’s sewage removes a limited amount of crud before it is pumped out to the ocean. The U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, a State Department agency, is under a court order to upgrade the plant, which violates Clean Water Act standards.

Underlying that issue is a separate problem: Many homes in Tijuana lack plumbing. In a city where somewhere between 10 percent and 50 percent of the population do not have indoor plumbing, the resulting mess gets flushed into the Pacific Ocean with each rainfall.

Neither plan offers to plumb Tijuana’s homes. But Bajagua officials say their plan will provide a necessary expansion of Tijuana’s sewage collection infrastructure, providing a receptacle for any plumbing that would be installed.

Their proposal has been clouded by the manner in which it came into existence. Unlike a majority of government contracts, the Bajagua project was not competitively bid. Its operation and construction cost will be borne by American taxpayers. The company has missed key deadlines, though, and says it will not complete its plant by September 2008, as required by a federal court decree.

The GAO report is likely to be the basis for a push to kill Bajagua and opt for improvements in treatment standards at the San Ysidro plant. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who requested the report, cited it as a call for action.

“This report shows that Bajagua has less certainty and more cost,” Feinstein said in an e-mailed statement. “This has been put off for years. The time has come to move forward with expanding the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant.”

Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission, echoed Feinstein. Spener said the report was “very favorable” to the commission’s plan to upgrade the San Ysidro plant. The commission has $66 million in hand to finance the upgrade, which it was prohibited from pursuing pending the GAO report. President George Bush’s 2009 budget includes a commission request for the additional $28 million needed to pay for the upgrade.

But Bajagua has no plans of disappearing. Craig Benedetto, a Bajagua spokesman, channeled Monty Python. “We’re not dead yet,” he said.

Benedetto called for a more exhaustive GAO analysis, which the agency said it could undertake at Congress’ direction.

“It’s almost like they wanted to stick to the middle, punt it, and walk away from it,” Benedetto said. “The only way to make an informed decision is to have a qualitative analysis. We’ve been dealing with this problem for 70 years. Is another 10 months of analysis really going to be a big problem?”

Briggs and Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, similarly called for a deeper study. Reznik has stayed neutral in the debate about Bajagua’s merits.

“The GAO report is not the comprehensive assessment of border sewage treatment strategies that is needed to address this chronic problem,” Reznik said in a statement. “It would be impossible to use this report to justify moving ahead with any particular project.”

But Serge Dedina, executive director of Imperial Beach-based Wildcoast, a Bajagua opponent, said the GAO report should serve as the impetus to complete the San Ysidro upgrade — and jettison Bajagua.

“Those of us who live and work along the border don’t need to wait for yet another study to tell us the beaches are polluted,” Dedina said in an e-mailed statement. “We need to immediately upgrade the [San Ysidro plant] and move forward on working collaboratively with Mexico to resolve this crisis.”

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

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