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Gov. Ducey declares emergency over sewer line break in Nogales

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency on Thursday, calling for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide technical assistance to staunch a breach in a pipeline that carries sewage from Sonora, Mexico, to a wastewater treatment plant north of Nogales, Arizona.

The pipeline, known as the International Outfall Interceptor, ruptured at some point before Tuesday morning just north of Nogales city limits, reported the Nogales International.

The 30-inch-wide sewer trunk line carries 12-14 million gallons of raw sewage and runoff each day from Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Ariz., to a treatment plant near Rio Rico, as part of an international water treatment plan regulated by the International Boundary and Water Commission under a 1953 agreement.

Following flooding from monsoon storms, and runoff from Sonora, a leak appeared in the IOI near a manhole, allowing untreated wastewater to bubble up into the north-flowing Potrero Creek, which connects with the Santa Cruz River.

The declaration comes after officials in Santa Cruz announced Thursday that water samples collected from Protero Creek on Wednesday show levels of e. Coli bacteria which exceed "normal recommend levels," according to tests done by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

As a consequence, Santa Cruz County Health Services and the Arizona Department of Health Services asked the public to stay out of the Nogales Wash and the Santa Cruz River.

The agencies also recommended that people who own private wells within 100 feet of the waterway have their wells tested for contamination.

Ducey's declaration includes a request for help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for "direct and technical assistance" in flood and damage mitigation efforts, including $200,000 to the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs for the work, along with other assets included under the state's emergency response plan.

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"Nothing is more important to me as governor than the safety and health of Arizona citizens," Ducey said. "We will make all necessary resources available as we continue to work with local and federal partners to respond to this incident."

Ray Sayre, emergency management director for the county, said that incident managers were working on the issue, and were "brain-storming contingencies."

"We can help solve this difficult problem, that’s not going to go away in a day or two," Sayre said. "We’re looking at a long-term solution for the issue here."

Officials remain are working to seal the breach before new storms arrive this weekend, he said.

On Wednesday, Nogales Mayor John Doyle called the pipeline break a public safety hazard, and said that the city did not have the resources "financial and otherwise" to make repairs to the IOI.

Doyle estimated the cost at more than $5 million and asked for help from state officials.

In his emergency declaration, Doyle took at shot at the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, saying that the city of Nogales has "repeatedly requested the USIBWC to assist in the remediation of the breech." However, the organization "has and continues to deny any responsibility or assistance to the city for the IOI breach," Doyle said.

In an email, Lori Kuczmanski, a spokeswoman for the IBWC said that the organization is "closely working with the city of Nogales and Santa Cruz County to take the necessary corrective actions to perform the repairs at the manhole of concern."

The city has already asked AGE Construction to do some bank erosion work in an attempt to prevent the potential failure of the International Sewer Line by future flood waters, said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva. "However it is clear that at this point federal assistance is necessary to fully contain the situation, adequately prevent further disaster and immediately protect public health," he said.

In a bipartisan move, U.S. Reps. Martha McSally and Grijalva, along with Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, sent a letter on Thursday to Edward Drusina, commissioner of the IBWC, concerning the break.

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"We fear the breach, which leaves Protero Creek, vulnerable to over 10 million gallons of untreated sewage flowing through this pipeline every day, poses a hazard to countless communities that live downstream of the pipeline," they wrote. "Consequently, the lack of cooperation and consensus between federal government and state and local officials could have widespread implications on the welfare and safety of Nogales' citizens."

The congressional foursome also mentioned the introduction of the Nogales Wastewater Fairness Act, which was designed to transfer part of the financial burden for repairs to the IOI from the city of Nogales to the IBWC. Grijalva and McSally introduced the act in the House in March, while Flake and McCain submitted a similar version for consideration in the Senate.

The bill would alter the 1953 financial agreement between the IBWC and Nogales, shifting the burden of rehabbing the IOI, which could be as high as $40 million. Nogales was on the hook for about $7 million, but under the bill that city would still be required to cover about $4 million.

"Given that the IBWC has an obligation to manage international infrastructure negotiations and operation the Nogales International Sanitation Project, we seek guidance from your agency on what led to this break and the next steps in managing the situation," they wrote.

McSally called break a "critical issue" and said, "This sewage break did not have to happen."

"As lawmakers, one of our most basic responsibilities to our constituents is to promote their welfare and protect their well-being," said Grijalva, adding that the emergency situation has "escalated to a level where the health and safety of its citizens are at risk."

Elizardo "Lee" Jacobs, the city utilities director for Nogales, said in March that the twin cities of Nogales had outgrown the limits to the treaty, "We're getting close to being on borrowed time now."

As Nogales, Sonora, grew rapidly, the need for additional capacity of runoff remained the same, and that the city has spent millions already on repairs to the IOI due to various reasons, including breaks, toxic chemicals produced by factories in Sonora, and breaches caused by smugglers who hoped to the use the sewage system to get drugs underneath the border wall.

Today, about 85 to 95 percent of the sewage is coming from Mexico, Jacobs said, and about half of the overall watershed also comes from Sonora which is slightly elevated from Arizona.

Jacobs said that in 2004, the city had a "thorough assessment" done on the IOI, which confirmed that the pipeline had begun to deteriorate. "We're looking at a potential catastrophe here, millions of gallons of waste could end up in the Santa Cruz river."

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Santa Cruz County

Water bubbles up from a breach caused by monsoon flooding in the International Outfall Interceptor, a 30-inch wide sewer trunk line that carries 12-14 million gallons of raw sewage and runoff each day from Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona, to a treatment plant near Rio Rico.