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Feinstein Urges Action On New River Pollution

By Erika Buck
Imperial Valley Press, February 17, 2001

Washington (MNS) - Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a signal this week to the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the administration should not overlook the ''severely polluted'' New River.

In a letter to EPA Chief Christine Todd Whitman, Feinstein outlined several ''troubling issues'' that still need to be addressed in the ongoing cleanup of the river.

''We've got a new EPA administration,'' said Rep. Duncan Hunter, who represents the Imperial Valley. ''To some degree I think her letter is trying to bring Christine Todd Whitman up to date on a very polluted river that is 3,000 miles away from her home state. It helps to put the New River on the radar.''

A water-treatment plant is under construction across the border in Mexicali. Mexicali is a major source of New River pollution, and population growth in the burgeoning industrial city threatens to outstrip the plant's capacity soon. Feinstein urged Whitman to plan for additional sewage-treatment facilities that would deal with what she called an ''impending crisis.''

Phil Gruenberg, executive officer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Palm Desert, agreed that efforts should be made to avert a problem.

''I think in the past there's been too much brushfire fighting on this situation,'' he said. ''That's the best we've been able to do. It would be nice to do some planning well in advance and address these issues before they're real concerns.''

Feinstein also called for federal efforts to disinfect the sewage that enters the New River, to rid it of pathogens that cause disease, including hepatitis and cholera. Treatment facilities should also remove nutrients from the wastewater, which cause excessive algae growth that degrades the Salton Sea, she wrote.

Mexican laws do not establish the same clean water standards, so the country cannot be relied on to shoulder the burden of removing the pathogens and nutrients, Feinstein said.

''Some of the treatment that we're asking Mexico to do is beyond Mexican law,'' said Gruenberg. ''Therefore we can't ask Mexico to pay for that since this is a matter of our interest more than theirs.''

Hunter agreed with Feinstein that wastewater treatment facilities need to keep pace with population growth and said he would support any new efforts from Feinstein to clean the river. He added that funding should come from both sides of the border.

The treatment plant being built in Mexicali is funded jointly by the two countries. The U.S. Congress appropriated $25 million to deal with New River pollution while Mexico contributed $20 million.

Finally, Feinstein urged Whitman to continue funding for water-quality monitoring at the border. The monitoring, which has taken place monthly since 1975, is intended to show whether cleanup efforts on the Mexico side are working, to ''make sure we're getting our bang for our buck,'' said Jose Angel, supervising engineer with the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Angel said he ''wouldn't lose any sleep'' if the EPA stopped funding his group's monitoring effort, but added someone needs to continue to measure the quality of the water flowing over the border.

''If it's water that's coming into the U.S., somebody better monitor it to see what Mexico is sending us,'' said Angel.

Local officials have been aware of the issues outlined in Feinstein's letter for some time, said Angel. But he said he is happy that she made an effort to bring those to the front burner once again.

''We're under the gun with the citizens of Calexico. This issue would not be happening if we were dealing with the beautiful people of La Jolla,'' Angel said. ''People are entitled to some sort of resolution to this terrible, chronic problem.''

The California office of the EPA acknowledged receipt of Feinstein's letter and was formulating a response, according to an EPA spokeswoman.

Eugenia McNaughton, the EPA's project manager for the New River, was unavailable for comment.

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