NACO, Ariz. — Friday night, Naco, Arizona, residents gathered at the elementary school to hear the latest updates on the raw sewage spill from Mexico that nearly caused an evacuation of some residences near the border Sept. 9.
County personnel Amanda Baillie, public information officer, Gabe Lavine, emergency services manager, Carrie Langley, director of Cochise Health and Wellness, and Amanda Stone, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) were on hand to provide information and answer questions.
A leak of raw sewage from Naco, Sonora, on to U.S. soil prompted an immediate response by the county and other local emergency services in an effort to prevent a public health disaster, began Baillie. The initial flow in the area around the Naco point of entry was stopped and contained. However, a second leak began when Mexican officials diverted the flow to a different sewer line and the pipe broke sending more sewage into the U.S. to the west of Naco, Arizona.
The sewage continued to flow west on to private property in the U.S. at a rate of between 288,000 and 432,000 gallons per day, noted county Emergency Services Coordinator Gabe Lavine. Although flows of sewage across the international border have occurred in the past, the current situation represents a 328 percent increase on previous incidents.
The flow initially traveled about three-quarters of a mile west, but the water has since evaporated. The current flow is an estimated 50 to 100 yards across the border and it appears the flow has lessened, but in the early morning and evening the flow increases.
The size and seriousness of the raw sewage spill prompted the county Board of Supervisors to declare a state of local emergency not only in the hope of finding funds to pay for all clean-up, but to also bring attention to the state and federal governments of the dire situation of the outdated, poorly maintained Mexican sewer system.
Baillie said, “While the county does not have the authority or resources to resolve this international border issue, it will continue to monitor the situation and respond to any future emergency situations.”
Local residents were assured their drinking water is safe, but were urged to avoid the spill area and any standing pools of water.
“We have requested assistance from the state to help with tests of the local water and soil,” stated Langley. “We are continuing to monitor the flow several times throughout the day, and we continue to treat it with chlorine.”
The county continues to work with state, federal and Mexican agencies to compel a long-term solution to the sewage spill problem. As was stated at the meeting of the supervisors when they declared a state of local emergency, the county does not have the authority or resources to resolve this international border.
Langley added, “Our number one priority is to safeguard public health and property and we are taking a proactive approach to ensure we meet that goal.”
The County’s Office of Emergency Management has also put a response plan in place to deal with another anticipated flow near the Naco port of entry when repairs to the sewage pipes take place in Naco, Sonora.
It is not yet known which agency will carry out those repairs, but it is expected to take place within the next eight weeks. The flow will occur when the system is flushed out, Lavine cautioned.
Naco residents are ready to be done with the whole thing, and the idea of waiting eight weeks to get a quick fix does not appeal to them. They have lived with it for years.
Resident Tony Quetel suggested the county lend them two backhoes so Mexican staff can dig a trench to contain the (feces) on their side of the border. “This is dangerous to us. Why do we have to wait while they do nothing to stop it? Why not send it back to Mexico? You don’t live here. You don’t live with it.”
“I can fully identify with your solution. If a temporary solution was as simple as pushing sewage uphill to that side of the border, we would do it. Believe me, we are going to work with the parties responsible for this and make sure it stops,” said County Administrator Ed Gilligan. “Now is the time to work on a long-term, permanent solution. The county is 100 percent committed to ending the problem.
“Our No. 1 priority is to insure the flows stay out of your homes.”
Resident Joe Garcia pointed out help has been given to the Mexican officials with no results. Supplies disappear.
“We never saw anything done. They want someone to give them the money. In the meantime, they’ll just keep throwing their (stuff) back at us.”
Stone told them, “We need an interim solution and a total system replacement. Gov. Ducey and the Sonoran governor are talking with each other. The North American Development Bank is also involved. They would provide the financial assistance.”
When asked about soil remediation, Stone declined comment to the press and requested the public information officer be contacted.
Supervisor Ann English said, “We are concerned about your health, but we’re not in a position to fix the problem. Our problem is to keep you from getting communicable diseases. You can remind your neighbors to the south the flow was headed for Naco Elementary.
“You can help us by talking to your neighbors about this. We need to make some noise.”
The county will consider erecting a fence around the contaminated area in Naco to protect children and pets from exposure.
To prevent any sort of communicable disease transmission from possible exposure to the sewage contaminants, Langley has scheduled an adult vaccination clinic for free to Naco residents on Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again at 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Naco Fire District facility at 2019 W. Martinez St., Naco. No appointment is necessary. Vaccinations will protect against tetanus, and Hepatitis A and B.
“The immunizations are a precautionary measure,” noted Baillie. “We have no cases of any illnesses reported, but when you have a situation involving raw sewage it’s always good to be prudent.”
Langely added, “The clinic is being offered as a public service. We have no reported cases of illnesses related to this situation. However, we continue to ask people to avoid the spill area and any standing water.”
The county is working with the following on the hazardous materials danger: the office of Gov. Doug Ducey, Congresswoman Martha McSally, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Arizona Department of Health Services, Arizona Department of Emergency Military Affairs, Pima County and the International Boundary & Water Commission.
In the meantime, to stay safe, residents should:
Use insect repellent when outdoors, wear long sleeves and long pants.
Keep screens on doors and windows repaired.
Eliminate any standing water in yards to prevent insect infestations. Mosquitos have a very short flight range, just 50 feet from where they hatched as larvae.
Watch pets for signs of nausea, vomiting or diarrhea from drinking contaminated, standing pools of sewage.
Stay away from areas where the sewage flowed.
— Carrie Langley, Cochise Health and Social Services Director
A free, adult vaccination clinic for Naco, Arizona, residents will be held on Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Naco Fire District facility at 2019 W. Martinez St., Naco. No appointment is necessary. Vaccinations will protect against tetanus, and Hepatitis A and B.