Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Homeland Security Assaults Environment In Rush to Build Border Fence

by Randal C. Archibold
The New York Times
April 2, 2008

In a sweeping use of its authority, the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday that it would bypass environmental reviews to speed construction of fencing along the Mexican border.

Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, issued two waivers covering 470 miles of the border from California to Texas well as a separate 22-mile stretch in Hidalgo County, Tex., where the department plans to build fencing up to 18 feet high into a flood-control levee in a wildlife refuge.

“Criminal activity at the border does not stop for endless debate or protracted litigation,” Mr. Chertoff said in a statement.

The announcement angered environmental groups, which have raised concerns through lawsuits and public hearings about the damage that fencing could cause to wildlife. Property owners, particularly along the Rio Grande, have also objected to what they considered federal intrusion on their land and access to the river.

Previously, Mr. Chertoff had used his waiver authority three times to overcome environmental hurdles along limited segments of the border in San Diego and Arizona. But as the department strives to meet a deadline of year’s end for nearly 700 miles of fencing, he has now greatly expanded the use of his waiver authority, which was granted by Congress.

So far, 309 miles of fencing has been put up, varying from tall metal barriers to impede pedestrians to simpler concrete posts designed to block vehicles.

“Congress and the American public have been adamant that they want and expect border security,” Mr. Chertoff said. “We’re serious about delivering it, and these waivers will enable important security projects to keep moving forward.”

Mr. Chertoff’s waiver power has drawn concern from some members of Congress.

Jodi Seth, a spokeswoman for the House Commerce and Energy Committee, said Tuesday, “When we asked the department to justify the need to waive these environmental laws, we were stonewalled.”

But Representative Brian P. Bilbray, a Republican from San Diego who heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus, a mostly Republican group, praised Mr. Chertoff as “recognizing the importance of moving forward with this fence without any further delays.”

“The American people demand that our borders be secured,” Mr. Bilbray said, “and this decision will go a long way toward accomplishing that.”

Under the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the department was authorized to build up to 700 miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile Southwest border, where most illegal immigrants cross.

Amy Kudwa, a homeland security spokeswoman, said the department had contacted 600 property owners and held 100 meetings and open houses as part of planning for the fencing.

In his statement, Mr. Chertoff said the department would continue to listen to environmental concerns. “We value the need for public input on any potential impact of our border infrastructure plans on the environment,” he said, “and we will continue to solicit it.”

Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group that had already asked the Supreme Court to review the waiver of environmental law in an Arizona fence project, said it would amend its petition to the court to reflect Mr. Chertoff’s new decision.

“Clearly, this is out of control,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

The Interior Department, which controls several tracts where the fencing is planned, said it had also raised objections to some fencing.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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