Thursday, August 7, 2008

Fill work in canyon may start this week: Border fence project had faced opposition

San Diego Union Tribune
July 29, 2008

By Leslie Berestein

Crews could begin filling in Smuggler's Gulch as early as this week for the border-fence construction project that environmentalists had opposed for years.

The gulch is a deep canyon west of the San Ysidro port of entry. Yesterday, Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, and Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad, held a news conference there to announce the expected start of the cut-and-fill phase.

“This is the last hole in the border fence,” Hunter said. “It's important to get this done.”

Earth-scraping equipment was scheduled to arrive yesterday, he said. A Border Patrol spokesman later confirmed that the contractor handling the fence project is obtaining more equipment.

The federal government plans to build an earthen berm across the canyon to support a 15-foot, secondary steel-mesh fence as well as patrol and access roads. The government will need to fill the canyon with more than 2 million cubic yards of dirt.

Hunter's aides said the cut-and-fill operation would be in full swing by Aug. 11, with about 22,000 cubic yards of earth moved per day.

This year, the government awarded a $48.6 million contract for the fence work to Kiewit Corp., a construction and mining company based in Omaha, Neb. The corporation has been preparing the site in recent months.

Government officials expect to finish the fence project by May 1.

The scale of the work has drawn widespread criticism from environmentalists, who fear that sediment from the earth-moving operation will harm the Tijuana River estuary. The estuary is an internationally recognized wetlands area that has cost millions of dollars to restore.

“This massive project is going to have some long-term impact, and nobody knows what that long-term impact will be,” said John Fanestil, executive director of the Foundation for Change, a grant-making organization that funds grass-roots, social-justice groups in the San Diego-Tijuana region.

Fanestil, a minister, was one of several people from environmental, religious and other groups who asked elected officials in recent months to propose plans with less environmental damage.
“We failed,” Fanestil said yesterday.

In February 2004, environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the San Diego Audubon Society sued in federal court to halt the fence project. The California Coastal Commission also stalled the project that same month, concluding that it would degrade the environment.

The next year, Congress passed a federal waiver authority championed by Hunter. The legislation enabled the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws and litigation standing in the way of building the fence.

Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security, set a precedent in September 2005 when he exercised the waiver authority in San Diego. In December of that year, the courts dismissed the environmental groups' lawsuit.

Since then, Homeland Security has waived environmental and other restrictions that impeded construction elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border. This has prompted more legal challenges as the federal government tries to build 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle fencing by year's end.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case stemming from an Arizona lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the waiver authority.

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