Delay in 'establishing ownership' led to sewage spill construction delay

Delay in 'establishing ownership' led to sewage spill construction delay
(Source: Tucson News Now)
(Source: Tucson News Now)

NOGALES, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The reluctance to claim ownership over the broken pipe that has spilled untreated wastewater into the Nogales Wash and Santa Cruz River is one reason construction was delayed to fix the problem, officials explained Friday, July 28.

During a news conference, Santa Cruz County Office of Emergency Management Director Ray Sayre said he was first informed about the breach of the sewage line on Monday, July 24. He said he informed officials with the Nogales Public Works department who then "found the partial rupture" on Tuesday, July 25, at around 11 a.m.

Construction on the broken sewage pipeline did not start until the afternoon on Friday, July 28.

Tucson News Now staff did not see any construction workers or crews from KE&G Construction, Inc. on site while getting video footage of the flowing sewage around noon.

When asked during Friday's news conference why there was a delay in fixing the exposed sewage line, when it was first discovered Monday, Santa Cruz County Public Works Director Jesus Valdez said, "One of the big questions was establishing ownership. That has occurred."

Valdez did not specify who owns the pipe. Our call to a public information officer involved in the project also did not yield this answer.

According to the Nogales Wash and International Outfall Interceptor Fact Sheet published on the Santa Cruz County website, The U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission and the city of Nogales are co-owners of the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The website does not specify who owns the pipe in the affected area, nor who owns the damaged International Outfall Interceptor.

"The other factor is that the Potrero Creek is running, and accessing the manhole is difficult," Valdez said. "If I have to use engineering judgment, I would say that the breach would be repaired within a week."

On Wednesday, July 26, Arizona Sen. John McCain issued the following statement about the pipeline problems:

"This week's severe breach to the International Outfall Interceptor (IOI) sewage pipeline along the U.S.-Mexico border is just the latest in a long history of unacceptable breakages to this deteriorating pipeline. The rupture could leave the Potrero Creek vulnerable to exposure of 15 million gallons of untreated sewage that flow through this pipeline every day. If left unattended, this spill could now flow through the Santa Cruz River, impacting countless communities in its path."

Officials at Friday's news conference could not clarify how much untreated waste was being released into the Nogales Wash by the exposed IOI.

"This is a partial breach. It's not a full breach. [15 million gallons] is what flows through it on a daily basis over a 24-hour period," said Jeff Terrell, Santa Cruz County Health Services Director.

"Based on the initial water quality results and the Declaration of Emergency by the City of Nogales, Santa Cruz County has also signed a Declaration of Emergency and submitted to the Governor's Office. Subsequently, the Governor's Office has declared a State of Emergency in Santa Cruz County in response to the IOI partial breach," a news release said Thursday.

Wastewater contamination of the Nogales Wash attributable to Mexico as it enters Arizona has been an ongoing issue for more than 20 years, the Fact Sheet stated.

"Accidental discharges to the Nogales Wash come from poorly constructed Mexican wastewater collectors and conveyance pipelines." Officials on the latest contamination have said the pipeline break was caused by powerful monsoon storms on July 23 and July 24.

A dislodged section of cement partially sheared the pipe below the waterline, causing the discharge of the wastewater into the wash, according to a Santa Cruz County Health Services news release.

Sayre said that the IBWC is "communicating with their partners across Mexico on the condition of what's happening."

Water samples from the wash are being tested to get a better understanding of the public health issue.

"All the municipal water sources are safe up through the waterway," Terrell said. "[The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality] is putting together a testing plan that is supposed to commence Saturday."

According to a news release issued by Terrell's office, the initial test samples found levels of E. Coli bacteria that exceeded recommended levels, both below and above the partial breach. "In response to the initial test results, Santa Cruz County Health Services and the Arizona Department of Health Services is advising the public to stay out of the Nogales Wash and the Santa Cruz River."

As of Friday evening, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was still seeking approval and funding to provide technical and direct flood fight assistance to Nogales, Arizona, under the Flood Control and Coastal Emergency Act. A news release explained that the proposed work would fill and armor approximately 280 feet of the exposed IOI in the Nogales Wash between Calle Sonora and Old Tucson Road that eroded.

Valdez explained that forecasted monsoon storms over the weekend could pose a problem for work being done on the IOI. He said that crews have to construct bypasses for the water in the Nogales Wash to be able reach the affected pipeline.

"But should that safety alert come along, we'll pull them out so that they are not in peril," Sayre said.

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