Border Patrol says it follows fence rules; environmental groups remain skeptical
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The U.S. Border Patrol is kicking off a massive program to build hundreds of miles of new fencing along the Mexican border, but initial efforts have some groups incensed because the agency skipped parts of a full environmental review.
Border Patrol officials, facing political pressure to speed up construction efforts of 700 miles of fencing authorized by Congress, say they’re doing all they can to protect the environment while fulfilling their mission to secure the borders.
But groups hoping to preserve habitat for endangered species like the jaguar, and a southern Arizona Indian tribe concerned about preserving burial sites and other cultural artifacts, say the environmental review process is being sidestepped. They point to the recent approval of seven miles of fencing straddling the south-central Arizona border crossing at Sasabe as an example.
The Sasabe decision follows two others since 2005 when Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived environmental regulations, laws and legal challenges for border projects. The first was for a fence east of San Diego; the second was to allow immediate construction of permanent vehicle barriers along southwestern Arizona’s Barry M. Goldwater Range, an Air Force bombing site.
There are no plans to issue any more waivers, though each project will be considered on a case-by-case basis, Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling said.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol final environmental assessment on the Sasabe project concluded there would be “no significant impact” from replacing temporary vehicle barriers with a fence of 15-foot tall, concrete-filled metal tubes set 4 inches apart.
That will let small animals skitter through but not people, vehicles or larger animals — such as bobcats, coyotes or elusive, rarely seen jaguars.
A private contractor began work recently, after the Border Patrol adopted an environmental review without allowing time for the public to comment on it. Those comments allow all sides to weigh in and raise objections to its conclusions.
The project received the blessings of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Brad Benson, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman.
Environmentalists say bypassing the public comment period sets a bad precedent.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the environmental activist group Center for Biological Diversity. “All other federal agencies have public comment periods.”
Some 75 miles of fencing designed to keep people from crossing the Mexican border on foot now exists, mostly in urban areas. But officials aim to have another 70 miles built by the end of September — 58 miles in Arizona, 3 miles in New Mexico and 9.2 miles in California.
It’s part of a Bush administration push to tighten the border with Mexico and help stem the flow of illegal immigrants despite Congress’ failure earlier this year to pass immigration reform legislation.
For several years, Arizona has been the focal point for undocumented people entering the country from Mexico.
In all, Border Patrol officials have the money for 370 miles of so-called pedestrian fencing and another 200 miles of vehicle barriers. They plan to have it all built by the end of 2008.
Benson said estimated overall fence construction could average as much as $3 million per mile.
Environmental advocates in California and Texas are as concerned as their Arizona counterparts that fence-building efforts will harm sensitive lands, wildlife and vegetation.
An area east of San Diego requiring a huge landfill effort has conservationists fearing that it will disrupt a principal stopping point for migratory birds in a federally protected estuary.
In Texas, a potential threat to the environment surrounding the Rio Grande from fence construction triggered intense opposition.
The Border Patrol’s Easterling said officials decided there was no need for public comment on the environmental assessment for Sasabe. They considered it a supplement to others done before temporary barriers were put in three years, when, Easterling said, no issues were identified.
Benson cited three other environmental impact statements for Sasabe between 1994 and 2004, and one borderwide environmental impact – along with public comment periods.
“Our objective is to follow the NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) process for all these projects,” Easterling said.
“They are actually trying to comply with NEPA in a rather hurried fashion,” said Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Matt Clark.
“The secretary says we’re following the process. I expect to follow the NEPA process through any projects we’re working on,” Benson said.
Under that process, he added, “a zero-day comment period is an option. And it looks like the department will use that option in areas where a whole lot of assessments have been done.
“There is an urgency to get fence built,” he said. “But even with that urgency, we don’t plan on waiving any pieces of NEPA.”