By Jessica Goad, Manager of Research and Outreach, Center for American Progress Action Fund
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee passed a bill out of committee yesterday that would waive 36 environmental, health, and tribal laws within 100 miles of U.S. land borders. H.R. 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, would give Customs and Border Protection, an agency under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, complete authority to waive these 36 laws if the agency deemed it necessary for border control activities. These laws include the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Law, and the Clean Water Act (see full list here).
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who sponsored the bill, defended it by claiming that “apparently we cannot have security with the present environmental laws.”
This bill simply removes the impediments, the prohibitions, and the restrictions. If Homeland Security needed to waive 36 laws to build the fence, those same 36 laws need to be waived for the border so they can do their job, and I defy anybody to tell me which of those laws has a higher priority than border security. You can have a good environment with security but apparently we cannot have security with the present environmental laws and the cavalier attitude in which they are being administered.
Democrats on the committee questioned why only environmental laws were included in the list, rather than bills regulating industrial development on public lands such as mining, energy development, and timber. They pointed out that if Rep. Bishop’s claim is true — that “unacceptable restrictions…prevent Border Security experts from doing their jobs” — then other laws dictating the use of federal lands should be included on the list. An amendment from Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) added two statutes governing mineral development and oil and gas extraction to the bill, and yet even after the amendment process, the bill remained almost entirely focused on rolling back environmental and health laws.
H.R. 1505 would also give Customs and Border Protection decision-making authority over federal land management agencies to conduct activities that “assist in securing” the U.S. border. This means that any recreational or industrial use of federal lands, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, grazing, mining, and many others, could be ended at a moment’s notice if Customs and Border Patrol demanded access to and control of a specific area.
For example, a hunting trip in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico or a fishing trip in Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota could be suddenly interrupted by new roads and fences. All of this could occur without any public notice or comment, or even judicial review. As ThinkProgress reported this summer, these authorities are “czarlike powers” for a single agency and could compromise our country’s critical checks and balances system.
In April, a representative from Customs and Border Protection testified that his agency already has a strong working relationship with public lands agencies, saying, “We continue to work with our federal land management partners to ensure that we effectively comply with environmental laws while we carry out our responsibilities to protect the nation.”
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) said yesterday that this bill should be thought of as “undocumented legislation,” in that Republicans are attempting to “sneak it into law” by claiming that border security and environmental protections cannot go hand in hand.