Legal, Water Quality
July 17 2018

Surfrider Files Citizen Suit to Stop Border Pollution in San Diego County

by Jaime Neary, Surfrider Legal Intern

For the last decade, the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) has been failing to protect the coastal communities of San Diego County from the health risks associated with transboundary sanitation. Not to mention the fragile ecosystems and local economy that are also negatively affected by USIBWC’s continued inaction. To prevent further harm, Surfrider is filing a Complaint and taking the necessary step to ensure that USIBWC can no longer continue their egregious ways and is required to come into compliance with the Clean Water Act. 

By discharging in violation of the applicable National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and through the unlawful discharge of pollutants without a permit, the USIBWC has failed to fulfill their statutory obligations. The Clean Water Act clearly requires that all pollutants discharged into waters of the U.S. require a NPDES permit and that all requirements of a permit be followed. When these statutory requirements are not met, citizens such as Surfrider are able to file a citizen suit and effectively enforce the law. Following no response from USIBWC during the 60 Day Notice period, Surfrider is taking advantage of this right. So as to not miss a single moment in the fight against these violations, Surfrider filed suit in the Southern District of California today—the earliest allowable under the Clean Water Act.

USIBWC’s longstanding tendency to not take action has created a toxic and dangerous environment that now plagues the Tijuana River Valley, Tijuana Estuary, and surrounding coastal areas. This citizen suit will force the USIBWC to address their numerous violations in a court of law and address the harm they have done to the local community. 

All walks of life are afflicted by USIBWC’s unlawful discharges. Discharges that have closed San Diego County beaches for more than 2,000 days in the last decade, causing coastal tourism and recreation to drop, and local businesses to close down. Beach closures stemming from USIBWC’s continued illegal discharge of waste, including sewage, trash, sediment and industrial waste from its facilities infringes on the sacred beach access rights of California citizens. Surfrider refuses to step aside and let these transgressions continue.

These violations are particularly dangerous and are directly responsible for a plethora of human health risks, as well as detriment to the local economy, which places limits on residents’ ability to recreate and degrades the unique environment that makes up this coastal ecosystem. Requiring USIBWC to comply with the Clean Water Act will go a long way in improving the health and way of life for the San Diego coastal communities most affected by the toxic levels of pollution. Until then though, individuals should continue to remain wary of the Tijuana River Valley and check for water quality notifications in the area. To not take heed of these and other warnings has the potential to cause burns in the mouth and throat, kidney damage, permanent brain damage, vision and hearing loss, as well as a whole host of other issues. It is risks like these that the Clean Water Act was written to help eliminate. These risks are preventable and coastal residents should not have to be subjected to these horrors in their own backyard.

 The Tijuana River Valley, Tijuana Estuary, and surrounding coastal waters make up a unique and beautiful ecosystem along the Southern California Coastline. Before the rampant pollution affecting the area today, residents, tourists and wildlife alike were able to enjoy a healthy environment on a daily basis. From surfing beautiful waves, to hiking in local parks and fishing with friends, there was something for everyone to take pleasure in. Surfrider has worked diligently over the years to educate the public about risks in the area and coordinate efforts to help USIBWC implement feasible solutions—the issues have only gotten worse though. After years of local outreach and coordination with USIBWC to no avail, Surfrider has decided it is now time to file suit.

Surfrider gives a big shout-out to pro bono counsel at McDermott Will & Emery LLP, for their extensive commitment to filing this complaint on behalf of our members and others continually affected by these Clean Water Act violations.