WASHINGTON – In an aggressive move to finish 670 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of the year, the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday announced plans to waive federal and state environmental laws.
The two waivers, which were approved by Congress, will allow Homeland Security to slash through a thicket of more than 30 environmental and cultural laws to speed construction.
Environmentalists and local officials have strenuously opposed some of the planned infrastructure projects, saying they will damage the land and disrupt wildlife.
But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday that the department is committed to minimizing the impact to the environment. The draft environmental assessments, he said, show the projects will have only “insignificant impacts on the environment and cultural resources.”
Critics, however, said the waivers are intended to sidestep growing and unexpectedly fierce opposition – especially in Texas and Arizona, where concerns have been raised about endangered species and fragile ecosystems along the Rio Grande.
“The Bush administration’s latest waiver of environmental and other federal laws threatens the livelihoods and ecology of the entire U.S.-Mexico border region,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.
Environmentalists’ concerns are that a fence could, among other things, disrupt the migration corridors of butterflies and two endangered species of wildcats: the ocelot, which resembles a miniature leopard, and the jaguarundi, an otter-faced relative of the puma.
Homeland Security’s push to build more fencing came after Congress failed to overhaul immigration laws amid an acrimonious national debate over illegal border crossings. In 2006, conservatives in Congress championed the Secure Fence Act, despite the reluctance of President Bush, who has insisted that a comprehensive approach is needed to deal with illegal immigration. Congress subsequently gave Chertoff the power to waive federal law to hasten construction.
The department has faced intense opposition from border communities and has had to go to court against more than 50 property owners simply to survey land for the fence. Experts said the congressional waivers will make it extremely difficult for successful legal challenges based on environmental or cultural claims. But the waivers will not affect the legal battles between Homeland Security and private landowners.
Until Tuesday, the department had given few hints that waivers would be used. Homeland Security had followed the environmental impact statement process, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The public was allowed to comment on the draft environmental impact statements and assessments. Some environmental groups said they were awaiting the final reports when Chertoff made the announcement.
Three previous waivers have been issued by Homeland Security.
One in September 2005 was issued to complete about 14 miles of fence near San Diego. Another in January 2007 was to build infrastructure near the Barry M. Goldwater military range in southern Arizona. A third waiver was issued in October 2007 near the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area, also in southern Arizona.