U.S. Border Patrol agents are becoming seriously ill as a result of a massive sewage spill across the border in Tijuana, Mexico.
Agents have increasingly reported serious infections, rashes, headaches and respiratory problems after 143 million gallons of sewage poured over from Mexico into the U.S. Tijuana River Valley back in February, the Los Angeles Times reports. The valley, a rural community in the southern section of San Diego, is patrolled by Border Patrol agents.
Thirty agents in June had reported illnesses connected to the sewage spill. Now, the number of agents who have reported being ill as a result of the sewage is at least 83.
Border Patrol agents do not have the gear to mitigate the risks of being in the area and have explored different options, such as taking more showers. However, it is not a comprehensive solution for agents breathing in and being exposed to still-unknown irritants.
The union representative for National Border Patrol Council’s Local 1613, Christopher Harris, said the sewage was a condition agents were not equipped to handle.
"They’re willing to put up with the normal hazards of law enforcement," Harris said. "We understand that’s part of our job. We get shot at. We accept all that. We do our best to mitigate it. We wear vests. We have trauma kits. But we can’t mitigate sewage and chemicals."
While the initial sewage leak occurred back in February, its impact on the region and border patrol agents is lasting, according to the Times.
The Imperial Beach Border Patrol Station has about 300 employees who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border from the Pacific Ocean through the Tijuana River Valley. Some work on foot, some in ATVs or SUVs, others on horseback.
The sewage leak in February and subsequent leaks flowed into the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, which covers 71.5 miles of dirt roads and paths.
The muck sticks around for a long time as it makes its way to the ocean. It settles into the riverbanks, overflows during rains and dries out in hot weather. It is impossible for Border Patrol agents to avoid.
The problem has impacted agent Joel Sevilla's ability to do his job after continued medical problems forced him to leave the prestigious ATV unit and instead patrol in a SUV.
"I had a really bad nasal infection, headaches and trouble breathing … I was losing my breath really fast," he said. "I’m not known for that because I’m very active. So I had to go to the doctor’s and the first time I went, they said that I had a nasal infection. They gave me some antibiotics and they treated it and it went away for like two or three days. Then it started happening again … What was worse were the headaches because I couldn’t sleep."
"I don’t get the headaches anymore because I’m not riding around in all that dust," Sevilla added. "When the water dries out, it turns into dust and that’s what we breathe."
Harris said what’s needed for a longterm solution is more reporting on spills and more testing of the sewage water.
The Border Patrol does not have the means to conduct tests and determine exactly what agents are coming into contact with. The responsibility of monitoring and documenting cross-border issues lies with the State Department's International Boundary and Water Commission. The commission has an office in San Diego and runs the South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the plant can’t treat all the sewage flowing across the border.