Saturday, December 25, 2010

Environmental waiver in hand, agency boosts its stewardship

Nogales International
December 24, 2010
by Jonathan Clark

A Department of Homeland Security-sponsored public forum last week on an upcoming border fence and road-building project in Nogales looked pretty much like any meeting that a federal agency might hold as part of its National Environmental Protection Act requirements.

Engineers and experts manned poster displays that described the technical details of the projects and detailed the ways that issues like water quality, biological resources, soils and geology would be taken into account. Meanwhile, a team of stenographers and court reporters stood at the ready to document citizen concerns.

“The reason we’re here is we want your input, we want information from you,” said Greg Gephart program manager for tactical infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at the start of the Dec. 14 meeting at the Holiday Inn Express.

We want to know what your concerns are on the projects, recommendations on how to do it differently, or how to do it better,” Gephart said, adding that those concerns and recommendations would be incorporated into the environmental planning documents for the project.

But whether CBP/Border Patrol follows any of the recommendations – or obeys federal environmental law during the planning or execution of the projects – is essentially optional.

For the past two-and-a-half years, the agency has been operating under a waiver that allows it to build border fencing and related infrastructure in the U.S. Southwest without having to adhere to more than 30 environmental laws. Then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the waiver in April 2008 to allow the Border Patrol to skip the environmental review process and speed up its fence-building efforts.

“The waiver doesn’t mean we’re throwing out all environmental considerations,” Gephart said. “It’s just a method that allows us to expedite the construction.”

But that hurry-up approach worries local resident Carolyn Wemlinger, who attended last week’s meeting to express her concerns about the effects the fence-building effort might have on local hydrology. Wemlinger, who lives in the Kino Springs area, said she’s worried that the 2.8 miles of concrete-anchored, bollard-style fencing planned for central Nogales could exacerbate flooding problems by creating dams above ground and blockages below.

“They say they’re going to start in 2011, and they’re going to do all these impact reports. How are they going to have time? And is the public going to get to see those before they start?” she asked.

“I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact on the environment; we can see the impact on the environment out where we are, where the wall already exists,” Wemlinger said. “There are some environmental needs that I haven’t heard addressed. I want the (Border Patrol) agents to be safe and to be able to do their job, but you cannot tell me that it’s not going to have an impact on wildlife, on flora, on fauna.”

Jenny Neeley, conservation policy director for the environmental advocacy group Sky Island Alliance, said she wasn’t sure how much project planners would listen to concerns like Wemilnger’s. But if Homeland Security is genuinely interested in environmental impact and citizen participation, she said, there’s an easy way to prove it.

“If they truly wanted public involvement and public input, that is exactly what the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed to do,” Neeley said. “And that’s what we would really like the Border Patrol to be doing: to be working inside of federal environmental law, like every single other agency in the federal government.”

Checkpoint past

Waiver or no waiver, Keith Graves, district ranger at the Coronado National Forest’s Nogales Ranger District, is confident in CBP/Border Patrol’s approach. “Their environmental compliance process is right up there with anything anyone has done under NEPA,” he said.

But grass-roots advocates say CBP/Border Patrol’s track record shows that environmental concerns receive mostly lip service as the agency pursues its primary mission of bolstering border security.

“We’ve gone through it in the north part of the county with the checkpoint,” said Sherry Sass, president of Friends of Santa Cruz River. “We’ve gone through rounds and rounds with the Border Patrol on the checkpoint. And that seems to be what happens; there’s a lot of talk, and then they do what they’re going to do anyway.”

A lackluster effort to publicize last week’s meeting also demonstrates CBP/Border Patrol’s level of interest in soliciting environmental feedback, the critics say. Indeed, the Nogales International only learned about the event from a packet of information forwarded by an aide at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ office. It then took phone calls to four different CBP spokespeople in Tucson and Washington, D.C. to confirm the meeting in time for a same-day preview article.

Attendance at the Dec. 14 meeting barely broke double figures. And while Gephart said citizens can submit feedback on the projects through Dec. 30, at the website, as of Dec. 20, the address redirected browsers to a non-interactive, general information CBP page titled “TI Environmental Stewardship.”

“I think it’s pretty telling that we didn’t even know about (the Dec. 14 meeting),” Neeley said. “We didn’t even know about a meeting they had with stakeholders and we obviously consider ourselves to be a pretty big stakeholder.”

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