NOGALES – Crews will begin replacing this week a section of an international sewage pipeline that leaked thousands of gallons of raw sewage from Mexico into a wash in southern Arizona.
Repairs could hamper the start of the area’s multi-billion dollar produce season, especially if disputes over who’s responsible for maintaining the 10-mile pipeline causes more delays.
“By the time we’re done, it’s going to cost $1.75 (million) to $2 million,” said Jose Nuñez, principal engineer for the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, a bi-national group that oversees infrastructure along the U.S. and Mexico border.
They expect it to take four weeks to replace a 50-foot segment of pipes at the International Outflow Interceptor. The cross-border pipeline carries nearly 10 million gallons of sewage daily from Nogales, Sonora to a wastewater treatment plant north of Nogales, Arizona.
Repair work was projected to start Oct. 2, but crews were unable to remove the broken section until the wash’s banks were stabilized to prevent them from collapsing on workers. Questions over who should do the stabilization work caused further delays, until the International Boundary and Water Commission decided to move forward with repairs.
The project will cap the latest episode in a long-running dispute between the bi-national commission and the city of Nogales over who owns the aging sewer line. It’s the subject of a lawsuit making its way through court.
Nogales claims the pipeline falls mostly under the jurisdiction of the International Boundary and Water Commission since it’s an international infrastructure project. The commission, which operates the treatment plant at the end of the pipeline, argues Nogales is responsible for repairs because the city also uses the pipe and bills its residents to treat their wastewater.
This dispute delayed efforts to contain the leak, allowing thousands of gallons of raw sewage to pour into the wash and contaminate water sources, prompting an emergency declaration by the state in July.
The Republican congresswoman speaks with local residents and visits the site where wastewater is flowing across the border from Mexico into Arizona, near the Naco border crossing, on Sept. 18, 2017. Rafael Carranza/azcentral.com
Impact on produce industry
The delays will push repair work into the first week of November — well into the busy produce season — potentially affecting dozens of produce companies near the breach.
Nogales city workers discovered the leak in late July. Heavy monsoon flows raging through the Nogales Wash had ruptured the exposed pipe just north of the city limits.
Nearly a week after the spill began, Tucson-based KE&G Constructionbuilt a temporary bypass around the breach, setting up seven pumps along an adjacent county road, prompting Santa Cruz County officials to close the thoroughfare.
The county hoped to reopen the road in early October to allow trucks access to large produce warehouses lining Interstate 19.
“We need it open because produce is … a $3 billion industry for us,” County Manager Jennifer St. John said. “The produce season is here. I believe it’s our main and only thoroughfare to some of those warehouses.”
But because of concerns about the pumps, the county decided to keep the road closed until repairs are complete. If there are significant delays, however, they will meet with the International Boundary and Water Commission to find a solution.
The economy of this southern Arizona county, among the smallest and poorest in the state, depends heavily on produce imports from Mexico. The vast network of brokers, warehouses and distributors creates some 4,000 jobs and generates more than $430 million in economic impact.
“I think the industry will be able to adapt,” Lance Jungmeyer said of the October road closures. He heads the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which represents U.S. distributors of Mexican fruits and vegetables in Nogales.
“Certainly for some businesses it will … delay to getting their trucks through,” he added. “If it goes much beyond the first part of November, we will be very worried about how this could impact the season.”
In an industry that’s dependent on picking and delivering perishable items at the right time and place, even 30-minute delays for hundreds of truck drivers in the area can create significant “inefficiencies,” he added.
Contamination of the area’s groundwater from leaking sewage has also been a concern for decades. The pipeline is buried beneath the Nogales Wash, and disputes over maintenance have left some areas in disrepair.
Due to the area’s topography, the wash flows north and empties into the Santa Cruz River, a vital source of groundwater for Tucson and southern Arizona.
Soon after the latest spill began, testing from state officials uncovered higher-than-normal levels of E.coli bacteria in nearby water sources. That prompted warnings to residents and businesses near the Nogales Wash to test private wells to ensure the water was not contaminated.
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