Friday, May 16, 2008 | The federal government killed the Bajagua Project Thursday, ending one of the region’s most controversial infrastructure projects and leaving the U.S.-Mexico border region without a keystone plan to address Tijuana’s lagging sewage infrastructure.

In the end, Bajagua officials, reviled by environmental activists for their financial ties to Congressional officials, found out their project had been jettisoned nearly 30 minutes after a federal agency notified reporters.

The International Boundary and Water Commission decided to scuttle Bajagua’s proposed U.S.-taxpayer funded sewage treatment plant in Tijuana, instead choosing to upgrade a San Ysidro sewage treatment plant as the means to comply with a federal court order requiring that it meet Clean Water Act standards. The commission, a State Department agency that oversees border water issues, said the San Ysidro upgrade was a more certain plan that would cost U.S. taxpayers less than Bajagua.

The government’s decision brought a swift, unceremonious and expected conclusion to a $539 million private-public venture proposed in 2000 and touted as a complete solution to sewage treatment shortfalls in Tijuana, a city where the overwhelmed infrastructure cannot handle the growing population’s sewage.

“Everybody gave it their best shot on [Bajagua],” commission spokeswoman Sally Spener said, “and there were some hurdles that were not easily resolved.”

The commission had worked cooperatively since 2003 to advance the Bajagua plan, which was originally supposed to be operating by September 2008. Once it became clear the company would miss that deadline, the commission distanced itself from Bajagua. It moved further away after the release of a Government Accountability Office report in late April, which concluded that Bajagua was a more uncertain plan that would cost taxpayers more.

That report ignored several major questions, including the underpinning of the debate over border sewage — whether either Bajagua or the San Ysidro upgrade 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.

With the support of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the commission had been poised to dump Bajagua. It has some of the money it needs to upgrade the San Ysidro plant. In addition to $66 million that Congress appropriated last year, President George Bush’s 2009 budget includes a commission request for the remaining $28 million needed.

Bajagua proposed to build a 59-million-gallon sewage treatment plant in Tijuana that would have more than doubled the city’s treatment capacity. Once the plant is built, the United States was to pay Bajagua — a private company — to operate it.

With Bajagua’s scuttling, the region must return to the drawing board. While the commission has been debating whether to upgrade its San Ysidro plant or build Bajagua, it has made little progress in addressing cross-border pollution problems.

With each rainfall, hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage-tainted runoff are swept down Tijuana’s hillsides into the Pacific Ocean — a trend that has shown no signs of letting up, despite a decade-and-a-half of debate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has invested millions in Tijuana’s sewage infrastructure, one of the lone bright spots for a problem that has plagued the region for decades.

“We’re not any closer to solving the regional problem,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper. “If anything positive has come out of this, it may be that we can actually have the debate about the broader issue without getting sucked into the pro- or anti-Bajagua debate. I don’t think anyone is going to credibly say the international plant is going to solve the border contamination problem.”

Bajagua will be remembered as one of the most divisive issues that has confronted San Diego’s environmental community. Unlike a majority of government contracts, the Bajagua project was not competitively bid. And while the company once claimed it was a comprehensive solution to Tijuana’s sewage problems, the project would not have put plumbing in the homes that lack it — the pollution’s root cause.

Still, Bajagua’s supporters, the San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation among them, welcomed it as a way to improve and expand Tijuana’s sewage capacity.

Its opponents, including Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña and Serge Dedina, executive director of Imperial Beach-based Wildcoast, decried it as a scam borne of Washington, D.C.’s backroom politics and celebrated the commission’s decision.

“The Bajagua project blocked every effort to rationally deal with sewage problems at the border,” Dedina said. “Thank God that the IBWC and we have a victory for good government and clean water.”

The company maintained late Thursday that it still had life and political support. Craig Benedetto, a Bajagua spokesman, said the company was proposing a downsized project. Instead of building a sewage plant that could treat 59 million gallons of sewage daily, Bajagua now proposes a 34-million-gallon plant along with a 25-million-gallon sewage recycling facility, which would treat the San Ysidro plant’s output so it could be used as a drinking-water source.

Benedetto said the new plan would be more politically palatable because any U.S. officials worried that Bajagua might fail — and thus delay cleanup of the San Ysidro plant’s deficient treatment — would have assurances that the Clean Water Act would be addressed by the IBWC. Bajagua would then be able to expand Tijuana’s sewage treatment capacity to meet the next decade’s demand.

“This process isn’t dead,” Benedetto said. “[Opponents] may think or wish or hope that it is, but it’s not. Jim (Simmons) and Enrique (Landa) have put a lot of money into this, and they’re not going to walk away just because the IBWC says we’re dead.”

Spener dismissed any discussion of Bajagua alternatives as premature.

Environmental activists who fought the Bajagua proposal hailed its death as a victory, though the decision leaves the region pondering the same proposal that some of those activists fought in 1994.

On Thursday, Saldaña, one of Bajagua’s most vocal critics, hailed the federal decision as a smart move. Instead of Bajagua, the government said it would push forward with a plan that Saldaña fought as a Sierra Club activist in 1994 — a type of sewage treatment technically called “activated sludge,” which is essentially a process that uses bacteria to eat the bad stuff in sewage.

Saldana filed suit in 1994 over that sewage treatment process, concerned that Tijuana industries were flushing chemicals into sewage that could kill the bacteria and render the added treatment moot. More than a decade of litigation followed, culminating in Congress’ decision to build the Bajagua project.

Fourteen years after protesting activated sludge, Saldaña on Thursday welcomed it. She said she believed Tijuana’s industries now treat chemicals that had once posed a problem. But a regulator who monitors Tijuana’s sewage said he was not aware of any such advance.

“I would still have a concern that the influence (of industrial chemicals) could be toxic,” said Brian Kelley, senior engineer at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the region’s water pollution police. “I’m not convinced that any further actions have been developed” in Tijuana.

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