California native Mayor Richard Bailey didn’t grow up in Coronado. However, when elected to Coronado City Council in 2012 he became acutely aware of the decades long beach closures in Coronado and Imperial Beach due to toxic waste flowing from Tijuana into the Pacific Ocean. While serving as Councilman, Richard Bailey became more informed and increasingly concerned as he heard from many residents demanding something be done about the frequent beach closures. Shortly after being elected Coronado’s mayor in 2016, the horrendous 143-million gallon Tijuana River toxic sewage spill of February 2017 occurred. The enormity of this days long spill galvanized newly elected Mayor Bailey to immediately seek a solution to the TRV (Tijuana River Valley) problem.
Mayor Bailey was not alone. The millions of gallons of toxic water and trash fouling the beaches of Imperial Beach were the last straw for IB Mayor Serge Dedina. Mayor Dedina, who grew up in Imperial Beach, initiated a lawsuit against the IBWC. Mayor Bailey and Coronado were asked to join this suit along with the city of Chula Vista. The Surfrider Foundation of San Diego had previously filed their own lawsuit against government agencies including the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) seeking remedy to the dangerous TRV transboundary pollution issue.
WHY NOT LITIGATE?
After studying the options available to the City of Coronado, Mayor Bailey, the City Council and Coronado’s legal counsel decided to pursue what has become known as the diplomatic approach to solving the issue of raw sewage and toxic waste emanating from Tijuana, Mexico. In cooperation with the City of Imperial Beach, it was also decided that Coronado would commit to contributing $50,000 toward IB’s initial efforts lobbying the government of Mexico. The total installment payments of $50,000 toward the $250,000 IB Mexico lobbying effort was completed in spring of 2018.
In discussing why Coronado chose not to litigate, Mayor Bailey explains, “While we believe litigation plays an important role in applying pressure to the federal government, even if successful, Congress needs to appropriate the funds to the federal agencies that will actually build the mitigating infrastructure.” Further, “By not being involved in litigation, this allows us the opportunity to have conversations with several government agencies and Congressional members with whom we might not have been able to interact.” The 2017 members of Coronado’s City Council, with guidance and advice from Coronado’s legal counsel, unanimously voted to proceed with the diplomatic approach. At an early 2018 City Council meeting, the vote to appropriate funds to hire lobbying firm, Best, Best and Krieger was unanimous. The 2018 as well as the newly elected 2019 Council members are all still unanimous in agreeing with these decisions.
The ongoing Imperial Beach lawsuit does not have a first court hearing date scheduled until April 13, 2020. At a May 9th Surfrider San Diego update meeting, Policy Coordinator Gabriella Torres informed attendees that a recent settlement conference with Commissioner Jayne Harkins and members of the IBWC was not successful. IBWC Commissioner Harkins appears to be more proactive than her predecessors in repairing and building new collectors and berms along the main channels, however Surfrider’s legal action against the IBWC continues.
DIPLOMATIC STRATEGY PROGRESS
As Mayor Bailey explained, “We are all in this together. Everyone has the same objective.” Mayor Bailey further stated that it is his belief that “Coronado has been able to advocate for this issue in different ways than would have been available to us had we joined litigation.” Bailey believes it is a fair statement to say, “we are further along diplomatically, due in part to meeting the challenge of raising awareness to key decision makers that actually have the power to make changes. We are reaching out, in a non-partisan way, to all members of congress and those in power to inform them of the hazards to the health of our federal agents working along the border, dangers to our Navy SEALs and Naval operations, the health of our residents, as well as the unmitigated environmental disaster to our coast.” Mayor Bailey continued, “In these hyper-partisan times, the trans border pollution issue is a reason for people of all political stripes to come together and work toward a solution for the betterment of everyone.”
In the past 12 months, Mayor Bailey, Councilman Whitney Benzian and City Manager Blair King have made several trips to Washington, D.C. seeking to raise awareness and forge alliances with members of U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, cabinet members of the President of the United States and his close associates. Congress recently voted for an additional $30 million, in addition to $25 million in appropriated funds for environmental projects along the U.S.-Mexico border. California Senator Dianne Feinstein secured $35 million to help clean up the TRV pollution, update and build new wastewater treatment facilities and other needed infrastructure. This is but a beginning to the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to be spent by the United States and Mexico to prevent toxic pollution spills in the years to come.
Over several months the city of Coronado’s lobbying efforts have helped develop a strong alliance with the EPA. At the first Stakeholder meeting, which focused on the TRV Watershed, EPA Regional Director Michael Stoker committed to making the U.S.-Mexico trans border pollution crisis a matter of national importance within the EPA. The EPA, partnered with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for the state, has its own lawsuit pending against the IBWC. In February of 2019 the city of San Diego joined in this particular lawsuit. To follow up on commitments made at that April meeting in Imperial Beach, EPA Director Stoker pledged to Mayor Bailey that within six months another meeting would be held to brief stakeholders on reports the EPA had been working on, evaluating several potential mitigating measures. This next meeting, hosted by the city of Coronado, will take place on June 5th in the Coronado Community Center’s Nautilus Room.
FORGING PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS – GETTING PROJECTS FUNDED
Mayor Bailey stated there is no doubt that establishing face to face relationships can be most important to getting issues on the radar of those who are in a position to help. Petitions alone cannot get the job done. “Once a problem is on their radar, they see the petitions, letters and emails come in and they are further impressed with the importance of that issue. Both approaches are invaluable.”
The process is pretty much the same for all problems. First, creating awareness and getting people to agree something is an important issue; then identifying solutions to solve the issue, and most difficult, getting Congress to appropriate funds to secure the solutions to fix the issue. The mayor believes, “We are in the later stages of identifying solutions to the TRV pollution crisis and obtaining funds.” Mayor Bailey informs us that the EPA has released a list of projects needing funding of $400 million to address U.S.-Mexico border environmental issues, including our own. While this is not enough to correct all issues, Coronado representatives have been lobbying Congress to appropriate funds to be directed into the Border Environmental Infrastructure Fund (BEIF). Bailey explains, “this BEIF money can only be used for projects such as those for which we have been advocating. Historically, this account has held about $100 million dollars. However, over past administrations this BEIF account money has been zeroed out. Since Congress cannot earmark money for specific projects, all that can be done is to to try to get funds directed into accounts upon which there are strong limitations. Accomplishing that, we feel confident the EPA will use these funds to prioritize correcting our region’s particular TRV problem.” About a year ago Congress directed $10 million be put into the BEIF account; then a short time later Senator Feinstein and others were successful in getting another $15 million added, and during the most recent budget cycle, the House called for an additional $30 million to be directed to the BEIF account. Mayor Bailey states, “significant progress is being made toward funding the EPA‘s $400 million budget needs. When this money starts coming in, we hope the EPA will make our region a funding priority.” After the June meeting all stakeholders should have a better understanding of how soon to expect shovels might be going into the ground.
CRITICAL WORKING RELATIONSHIPS
Mayor Bailey emphasized that he believes, “Coronado has a good working relationship with all stakeholders. We are all in this together, working toward the same goal. It is not productive to demonize anyone’s efforts. I appreciate everyone’s efforts to address this issue in whatever manner they feel most productive.” Forging strong relationships with members of Congress, the administration and involved government agencies is critical to the success of correcting the long standing TRV pollution problem.
We all hope to see significant progress made to finally fix the TRV toxic pollution spill crisis. Due to Mexico’s inadequate infrastructure, pipeline breaks and rogue dumping, this is not just a problem that comes with the winter and lately, spring rains. The United States alone cannot prevent toxic pollution flowing into the Pacific Ocean from Mexico. Hopefully the government of Mexico will recognize the need to work cooperatively and appropriate funds to finally remedy this dangerous situation for their citizens as well as ours.