by Steve Mistler
Environmentalists and the state's congressional delegation are closely monitoring a controversial bill that would give the Department of Homeland Security the authority to waive dozens of federal environmental laws along the nation's borders and coastline.
If enacted as written, the legislation could have a significant impact in Maine. The proposed broadening of Homeland Security power would allow the agency to conduct activities across the entire state while avoiding any one of 36 federal environmental regulations, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The legislation is born of congressional lawmakers' concerns over illegal immigration and increased calls to tighten border and coastal security.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who in April argued that a "turf war" between land managers and Homeland Security prevented border patrol agents from effectively enforcing the southern border with Mexico.
But the proposal also includes a 100-mile waiver belt that wraps around the nation's northern and southern borders and its coastline. The zone engulfs several entire states, including Maine.
Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environmental Group, based in Washington, D.C., said the bill would allow DHS to unilaterally waive 36 core environmental laws without consulting state or federal agencies.
"People in Maine, certainly people in the country, think that our borders should be safe and secure," Danowitz said. "But this, a sweeping waiver of environmental laws, doesn’t seem to be the way to accomplish this goal."
Jane West of the Conservation Law Foundation said the bill could have a wide range of consequences, including the impairment of hunting and fishing habitat.
"Imagine if the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was completely waived for the North Woods," West said. "Nesting eagles now could potentially have their habitat completely destroyed because Homeland Security deems that a fence may be appropriate for that particular area."
Opponents also note that DHS already has authority to bypass federal environmental laws through a 2006 memorandum of understanding drafted under President George W. Bush.
According to Danowitz, the memo includes checks and balances not present in the federal bill, H.R. 1505.
Rep. Bishop said during the bill's April 15 hearing that bureaucracy among agencies prevented the U.S. Border Patrol from moving quickly to plug holes in the border or to install surveillance and security equipment.
Bishop cited one case in which it took four months for Border Patrol to obtain a waiver from the required land manager to install a mobile surveillance camera. The result, he said, was a porous border where violence and drug and human trafficking were rampant — arguments he attempted to reinforce with a video set to foreboding music.
"People are being assaulted, raped and murdered on American land," Bishop said.
While the bill's opponents concede there are problems on the southern border, they are concerned about the breadth of DHS empowerment in H.R. 1505.
Former Clinton administration Department of Interior Solicitor General John Leshy told lawmakers in April that the bill was the "most breathtakingly extreme legislative proposal of its kind."
Leshy said the bill effectively would allow Homeland Security, armed with 200,000 employees and a $55 billion budget, to "do what they want, without any advance notice, check, or process." He said such activity might include building fences, barracks or support equipment that would restrict the public's recreational and commercial activities.
Environmentalists hope the ranging impacts will be scaled back as the bill makes its way through Congress. However, West, with the Conservation Law Foundation, worried about the Washington political climate.
"Right now, it’s popular to cut the head off anything that looks green, especially when you throw in that immigration dynamic," West said.
Most of the state's congressional delegation have responded cautiously to H.R. 1505.
Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called for tighter border security along the northern border. Collins cited a Government Accountability Office report that called for additional oversight and coordination between U.S. and Canadian authorities to prevent drug trafficking and other illegal activity.
In a written statement, Collins said gaps in border security made the country vulnerable to criminal activity and terrorism, but added that "securing our borders and protecting our environment need not be conflicting goals."
Collins also cited testimony from President Barack Obama's administration that securing the border would result in less harm to the environment.
That argument was also made by Bishop, who said in April, "It's not national security that threatens our environment. It's a lack of national security that threatens our environment."
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in a written statement that securing the country's "porous borders" while protecting the environment were not mutually exclusive goals.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, was more critical of the legislation, saying that he wasn't sure it solved the problem of border security. He encouraged better cooperation among the agencies.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, opposed the bill outright.
"I just don’t see how protecting endangered species and clean water stands in the way of national security," Pingree wrote in a statement.
She added, “We should certainly do everything to tighten our borders and make sure agencies are working together. But that doesn’t mean we should give Homeland Security the power to damage our environment and our way of life while they do it.”