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San Diego County faces multifront health threat amid transboundary sewage flow from Mexico

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San Diego County faces multifront health threat amid transboundary sewage flow from Mexico


A transboundary sewage stream that regularly flows from Tijuana, Mexico, into San Diego County may be creating a multifrontal public health crisis — as a noxious mix of chemicals and pathogens makes their way into households not just via water, but also through air and soil.  

The cross-border contamination — a result of inadequate infrastructure and urbanization — poses a persistent public health threat with significant socioeconomic and legal implications, according to a new white paper, shared with The Hill prior to its public release on Tuesday.  

Of particular concern is the possibility of the reemergence of diseases that had previously been eradicated in California, microbes carrying antibiotic-resistant genes and industrial chemicals that have long been banned in the U.S., per the authors.  

“I don’t go to Imperial Beach anymore — I used to go all the time, quite frequently,” lead author Paula Stigler Granados, an associate professor at San Diego State University’s School of Public Health, told The Hill.  

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“As a scientist, when you know, it’s really hard to turn that brain off,” she continued. “Especially now that we’re talking about the contaminants becoming aerosolized, it really has me paused.” 

Aerosolization refers to the suspension of waterborne pathogens and compounds in the air — a mounting concern in Southern California’s Imperial Beach, a border-adjacent city that has borne the brunt of an unrelenting transboundary sewage crisis. 

The fetid flow, which results from insufficient sewage treatment on the Mexican side of the border, ends up in San Diego County both via ocean plumes and the Tijuana River Watershed — which passes through Baja California before reentering its U.S. counterpart.   

Area residents have had some room for hope in recent weeks, after Mexico began overhauling an obsolete facility that releases millions of gallons of sewage daily into the Pacific Ocean.   

But on the U.S. side of the border, the South Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant — which treats some of Tijuana’s waste through an international treaty — is also failing to pull its weight.  

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Congress in 2020 allocated $300 million toward renovating the site, but officials warned that the plant requires $150 million more to function properly. President Biden then asked lawmakers this past fall to authorize an additional $310 million, but that approval has yet to occur. 

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), who serves San Diego County, last month called upon Congress to approve Biden’s request, describing a situation in which sewage is spewing “dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide into the air around people’s homes.” 

The congressman also requested that the San Diego-based Prebys Foundation commission the new white paper, which synthesizes about 60 reports related to the region’s wastewater woes and sheds lights on the extent of the public health crisis.  

“What we realized was over the years, a lot of people had been doing research on this, but the body of it was fairly opaque,” Peters told The Hill.  

The congressman said his office first became involved in this issue following the 2017 breakdown of Tijuana’s sewage infrastructure, which prompted a swell of comments on the matter from his constituents.  

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“We started out just getting beach closures every once a while, but it was hundreds and hundreds of days a year,” Peters said.  

While border communities like Imperial Beach face the most chronic effects of the crisis, other parts of San Diego County — including the peninsular resort city of Coronado — also endure regular episodes of contamination. 

Peters acknowledged that as opposed to Imperial Beach, most of his district, which includes Coronado, cannot be defined as an environmental justice community — a largely low-income or marginalized population with a disproportionate pollution burden = 

But he stressed that Coronado’s beaches do serve the Latino residents of the South Bay, while also hosting Navy SEAL, U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Coast Guard operations.   

To that end, Peters and fellow San Diego County Democrats — Reps. Sara Jacobs, Mike Levin and Juan Vargas, the latter of whom represents Imperial Beach — recently sent a letter to Navy leadership about how the pollution is affecting SEAL training.  

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The writers expressed their concern that if the contamination is not curtailed, further training cancellations could occur and “harm the Navy and our military readiness.”  

Since 2018, the International Boundary and Water Commission has documented more than 100 billion gallons of wastewater entering the U.S. through the Tijuana River, according to the authors of the white paper.  

“It’s just a toxic soup,” Stigler Granados said.  

The continuous stream of sewage, the authors stressed, has led to more than 700 consecutive days of beach closures and taken a toll on the local economy and tourism.  

The contamination not only poses public health risks but also creates environmental justice issues, as border-adjacent communities are often equipped with fewer resources and face a heightened risk of chronic diseases, the authors noted. 

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Most under threat are vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and children, as well as lifeguards Navy personnel, first responders and border patrol agents, according to the paper.  

Within the region’s soil sediments, scientists have identified more than 170 compounds — such as toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), prohibited pesticides like chlordane and DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals and phthalates. 

“The pesticides that we’re finding in the environment and soil — they are banned in the U.S.,” Sigler Granados said.  

Many of these chemicals “are known to be persistent, bio-accumulative, carcinogenic, toxic and can be resuspended in water and air during weather events in both the wet and dry seasons, exposing nearby communities,” according to the white paper.  

Levels of arsenic and cadmium in area soil samples exceeded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thresholds, while concentrations of bisphenol A (BPA) and triclosan were comparable to those in sewage sludge, per the paper.   

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As far as the region’s water is concerned, the white paper catalogs a smorgasbord of viruses, bacteria and parasites found in samples, including HIV, Hepatitis B and C, salmonella, vibrio, streptococcus, tuberculosis, listeria, trichomoniasis. 

Also of concern to the researchers was the heightened presence of microbes carrying antibiotic-resistant genes, as well as antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli and Legionella bacteria.  

In addition, they flagged an emergence of zoonotic pathogens — those that can jump from animals to humans — in bottle nosed dolphins that have died of bacteria-induced sepsis.  

Water tests have also confirmed the presence of pesticides, herbicides, volatile organic compounds, acetone, methanol, xylene, plasticizers, hormones and flame retardants. Out of 392 total organic chemical contaminants identified, 224 appeared on regulatory lists, while 175 were indexed under the EPA’s Toxic Substance Control Act. 

“A substantial number of contaminants of emerging concern were detected in the water for the first time,” the authors stated.  

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The researchers stressed that pollutants and pathogens can become airborne through aerosolization and travel long distances — entering homes, schools and businesses and reaching those who have had no direct contact with the water.  

Reiterating the risks posed by this exposure pathway, the writers cited a March 2023 study, in which a University of California San Diego team showed that polluted coastal waters are ending up in the atmosphere as aerosol. While the public health threat is difficult to quantify, the researchers found that the “sea spray” mix contains bacteria, viruses and chemical compounds. 

“You can respire them and breathe them in and become ill as a result of that,” Stigler Granados said, noting that these pathogens can also settle on objects like playground equipment.  

Although linking environmental exposures to specific illnesses remains a challenge, Stigler Granados said that an urgent care clinic in San Diego County has been reporting upticks in gastrointestinal illnesses following storm events.  

But because many of these diseases are self-limiting, county-level epidemiological surveillance would be needed to explore any potential correlations, she added.  

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Going forward, Stigler Granados and her colleagues called for increased air quality monitoring, community exposure investigations and U.S.-Mexico strategic plans that prioritize infrastructure.  

“Investments by Congress and federal and state agencies are desperately needed,” the authors concluded.  

The white paper’s conclusions may have a local, San Diego region focus, but they are indicative of a broader national problem, according to Eli Dueker, a microbe aerosolization expert who was not involved in the research. 

“This is actually happening across the United States and has been a very long time,” Dueker, an associate professor of environmental and urban studies at Bard College, told The Hill. 

His research focuses on the connections between water and air quality in New York’s Hudson River, as well as hazard-designated sites like the state’s Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.  

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“It is a new way to think about water quality,” said Dueker. “Whether or not you engage with the water, if you’re also breathing the water, that’s a whole different ballgame.”  

Dueker credited the white paper’s authors for “laying out the kinds of things that people can be exposed to,” while noting that antibiotic-resistant pathogens are present in sewage nationwide. 

“I also really appreciated the fact that they center in on the communities that are most vulnerable to this,” he added. “That’s how policy should be generated.”  

With regards to federal policy and the congressional funding question, Peters said he’s “pretty hopeful” that his fellow lawmakers will approve Biden’s $310 million request. 

Paloma Aguirre, mayor of Imperial Beach, told The Hill in an email that while her city is grateful for the president’s appeal, they need more federal and state support “to tackle this public health ticking time bomb.” 

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From an engineering perspective, Peters explained, fixing the South Bay plant is simple, but the international border and federal funding aspect creates a complicated renovation process.  

“We’ve taken as many federal officials out to the plan as we can — get them out there on a nice, stinky day,” he continued. “It’s pretty remarkable.”  

If the money comes through, Peters said it will double the size of the facility and provide for ongoing maintenance. Yet in the interim, he described a status quo in which Mexico is now ahead of the U.S. in terms of treatment plant reconstruction efforts.  

“It’s very fashionable to blame Mexico from Washington,” Peters said, noting that Mexico is meeting its “side of the bargain” in terms of treaty obligations.   

“I don’t want to be lagging behind Mexico,” the congressman added. “They’re setting the pace, and we need to catch up.” 

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Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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Two giant pandas are being sent to San Diego Zoo from China

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Two giant pandas are being sent to San Diego Zoo from China


Panda diplomacy is back. 

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Two giant pandas are headed to the San Diego Zoo on loan from China as a gesture of diplomatic goodwill towards the United States.

In a statement from San Diego Zoo officials obtained by The Associated Press, all permits and other requirements have been approved. 

The two bears are expected to arrive by the summer’s end. 

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Why are pandas coming back to San Diego? 

In November 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his nation would send new pandas to the U.S. as motion to strengthen diplomatic ties between the two countries. 

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” Xi said last year during a dinner speech with business leaders.

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READ MORE: Chinese president Xi signals more pandas will be coming to the United States

Fears over the future of so-called panda diplomacy escalated last year when the zoos in Washington, D.C., and Memphis, Tennessee, returned their pandas to China, leaving only four pandas in the United States, all at the zoo in Atlanta. That loan agreement expires later this year.

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But in November, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised hopes his country would start sending pandas to the U.S. again after he and President Joe Biden convened in Northern California for their first face-to-face meeting in a year and pledged to try to reduce tensions.

Who are the pandas?

China is considering a pair that includes a female descendent of Bai Yun and Gao Gao, two of the zoo’s former residents, said Owen, an expert in panda behavior who has worked in San Diego and China.

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Giant panda Bai Yun is seen at China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda Dujiangyan Base after years in U.S. on May 16, 2019 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province of China.

Bai Yun, who was born in captivity in China, lived at the zoo for more than 20 years and gave birth to six cubs there. She and her son were the zoo’s last pandas and returned to China in 2019.

Gao Gao was born in the wild in China and lived at the San Diego Zoo from 2003 to 2018 before being sent back.

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Will other zoos get pandas? 

“We’re very excited and hopeful,” said Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and vice president of Wildlife Conservation Science. “They’ve expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo.”

According to the China Wildlife Conservation Association, it is currently in talks with zoos in Madrid, Spain, Washington, D.C., and Vienna to solidify a partnership that will further research into the animals. 

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The partnership will include research on disease prevention and habitat protection and contribute to China’s national panda park construction, the organization said.

“We look forward to further expanding the research outcomes on the conservation of endangered species such as giant pandas, and promoting mutual understanding and friendship among peoples through the new round of international cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in Beijing.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles. 



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San Diego librarians’ work now involves battling censorship

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San Diego librarians’ work now involves battling censorship


A handful of people lined up outside Rancho Penasquitos Library on a chilly morning last week, like eager shoppers on Black Friday.

“Morning, how are you?” asked Adrianne Peterson, the library’s branch manager, greeting patrons with matched enthusiasm. “Wow, everybody is showing up today.”

Peterson is a 30-year veteran of libraries. She studied art as an undergraduate at San Diego State University, but switched to library information science for graduate school at the University of Illinois after some self-discovery.

“I learned about myself as I got older, that what’s meaningful to me is to help people,” Peterson said. “Being a librarian is a way that I could help every person every day, from the littlest kid to seniors and everybody in between.”

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She has built a career on helping people. She said libraries offer much more than books — early literacy programs, resume building, and helping people earn their high school diplomas. At a time of fraying social bonds and epidemic loneliness, she noted libraries are one of the last shared spaces open to everyone.

“You don’t have to pay to come to the library,” Peterson said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, rich or poor, educated, whatever your religious beliefs are, we don’t judge. We don’t tell you what to read.” 

So she was shocked last June when she got a ransom note of sorts from two Rancho Penasquitos women objecting to a Pride Month display.

“I received an email saying that, ‘We protest this type of material being on display, and we’ve checked out the materials, and we will not return them until you remove the display,’” Peterson recalled.

She said the women did eventually return the books, but not before media coverage triggered a backlash to the attempted censorship.

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“My phone rang off the hook,” Peterson said. “People sent books. I had Amazon packages piled up on my desk, and they asked, ‘Can we make a donation? Can I go buy some books at Barnes & Noble and drop them off to replenish your display?’ And on and on.”

Peterson said she drew two lessons from the incident. Support for libraries and inclusivity is far greater than for censorship. But at the same time, San Diego is not immune to a trend in recent years of people trying to control what others read, despite a long history of public libraries.

Benjamin Franklin built America’s first library in Philadelphia in 1731. More than a century later, industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded 1,700 new libraries, dubbing them “Palaces for the People.” These democratic cornerstones are now increasingly under attack amid the nation’s current divide.

The American Library Association reports there were 695 challenges to more than 1,900 books in the United States during the first eight months of last year in places like Virginia, Tennessee and Iowa. That’s a 20% increase over the same period in 2022, which was a record-breaking year. 

The San Diego Public Library branches have received five official book challenges in the last five years: two in 2021, one in 2022, two in 2023. Patrons also air their grievances through online comments, like this one blaming the library for society’s ills:

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“The library is a den of inappropriate material for minor children and adults as well! The filth, hate and psychological disease you promote is disgusting! You each should be ashamed of supporting and promoting filth and garbage to our citizens! Yet you wonder why our society is so immoral and mentally deranged now….”

Most of the challenges are to books on race and LGBTQ+ topics, said Robyn Gage-Norquist, who leads the San Diego city library system’s reconsideration committee, which reviews book complaints.

“It’s the two issues that we just can’t get away from in our country,”  she said. “We want to categorize people and try to look for something that’s different about them and make that a challenge when it really shouldn’t be.”

She believes fear is driving censorship advocates.

“What’s happening is that people are now being frightened,” Gage-Norquist said. “They’re told to be scared of these books and that we’re taking them out to protect you.”

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Jennifer Jenkins, San Diego Public Library system’s deputy director of customer experience, contends that libraries are under attack also because they are one of the last institutions that are publicly funded. She said dictating what libraries offer the public is part of a larger agenda to foster ignorance, because an uninformed population is more malleable.

“The concept of libraries is radical,” Jenkins said. “To have that democratic approach to providing information so that you have an informed citizenry, an informed constituency, is threatening because knowledge is power.”

Jenkins said she’s ready for the fight to preserve the ideals underpinning libraries.

Back in Rancho Penasquitos, librarian Peterson is equally resolute.

“Most people are tolerant and encouraging of others and we should all learn how to be a team and find our similarities rather than our differences,” she said. “And I hope the library can help people do that.”

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She said patrons help too by pushing for more inclusiveness. She said most of the complaints she receives aren’t about trying to remove books, but from people who believe the library’s collection isn’t diverse enough.



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Migrant numbers up in San Diego Sector, encounters with Chinese up 500%

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Migrant numbers up in San Diego Sector, encounters with Chinese up 500%


SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — The U.S. Border Patrol Chief says San Diego is seeing a big jump in the number of Chinese migrants detained at the border, saying the sector is seeing a 500% increase in the numbers compared to the same time last year.

The immigration issue was one of the talking points for chairwoman Nora Vargas’ state of the county address Wednesday.

Chairwoman Vargas mentioned the increase in the number of asylum seekers trying to cross into San Diego and the funding approved to help them, which has since run out.

“Our federal government has an obligation to address this global humanitarian crisis,” said Vargas.

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While asylum seekers continue to arrive, the demographics are changing. On Tuesday, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens shared a tweet stating that the San Diego Sector has made over 140,000 apprehensions in the fiscal year.

He says over 20,000 of the migrants are from China, something he says is a more than 500% increase compared to the same time last fiscal year.

To try and find out why, ABC 10News spoke to Natasha Wong, president of the House of China in Balboa Park. Wong shared that friends and family back home say things haven’t recovered since the pandemic.

“I just heard that there are a lot of restrictions still on personal freedoms in China; things haven’t returned to normal,” says Wong.

Wong also runs the Chinese school of San Diego and says the school principal had requests for translators to help at the border.

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According to CBP numbers, in the last fiscal year to date, there were just over a thousand Chinese migrants apprehended, compared to the chief’s numbers of over 20,000 in the same time frame, roughly four months.





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