Sewage, pesticides and runoff: Toxic sludge is daily reality for border agents

SAN DIEGO -- Border Patrol agents in San Diego are being exposed to chemicals, raw sewage and pesticides on a daily basis as a result of Tijuana wastewater flows.

It’s been happening for decades, but Border Patrol says a major event in 2017 involving tens of millions of gallons of sewage spilling into the Tijuana River pushed the issue further into the spotlight.

In 2018, Customs and Border Protection officials ordered their own six-month study and water samples. The results concluded a list of alarming elements are present in the water, including cyanide, arsenic and, particularly concerning, hexavalent chromium.

"The one that Erin Brockovich made her bones on. That town where people died from cancer, that’s it," said Christopher Harris, a retired Border Patrol Agent said of hexavelent chromium.

Harris says he experienced his own medical problems after working in the sludge more than 20 years ago. "Within minutes I had this gigantic rash on my arm," he explained.

Included in CBP's report were pictures of rashes, allergic reactions, and even border agents’ boots disintegrating after coming into contact with the waste.

The worst case locally involves Joshua Willey, an agent who almost lost his arm to a flesh-eating bacteria in 2010 after training in contaminated waters. The sickness forced him to retire.

During a typical winter, in the main river channel along the border, water can flow all the way across and at times be several feet deep. While agents are never encouraged to go into the water, sometimes it’s unavoidable. "If they have to apprehend someone, then they’ll have to get in it— or at least decide if they want to get in it," said Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Amber Craig.

Other agents are harmed not even by touching the water or mud, but simply by being in close proximity. In on particular area along the border more vulnerable to illegal crossings, an agent must be present 24-7. It’s also the location of a water treatment plant.

"The design there is for the water to flow in, sit, dry out and off-gas there," Craig explained. "It’s designed to help treat the sewage, but it’s not meant for people to be present when that’s happening."

As a result of the recent study's findings, CBP has outfitted every agent with a kit in their unit, including things like breathing masks, a waterproof suit and heavy duty gloves.

Harris wonders where it ends. "Working in a chemical waste dump is not part of the job and that has to stop," he said.

Several lawsuits have been filed against the federal government in recent months and local lawmakers recently traveled to Mexico to work toward long term solutions. "It is a great feeling of hope that now is the time, hopefully, that we can make some change," Craig said. Still, there is no final answer or permanent fix.

CBP recently completed an additional six-month study sampling more water and soil. The results have not yet been published.

Read the department's original study here.

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