The Trump administration plans to use a 2005 anti-terror law to avoid conducting an environmental review of the proposed border wall, according to a Reuters report.
The $21.6 billion dollar wall is expected to cross through more than 30 miles of the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the U.S. and Mexican border, an ecologically sensitive area that includes the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, sometimes called the “crown jewel” of the U.S. wildlife refuge system.
The refuge, which encompasses 2,088 acres and was established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds, is home to at least 400 species of birds, 450 types of plants, and half of the butterfly species found in North America, as well as the highly-endangered ocelot.
Despite struggling to secure funds from Congress for the construction of the wall in the 2018 federal budget, the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has already begun planning for its construction, which will likely stretch through the refuge. A Texas Observer report — confirmed independently to ThinkProgress by a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson — found that soil samples are already being taken within the wildlife refuge in preparation for potential construction.
“Drilling for soil sampling is being done at several locations along the southwest border, including in the Santa Ana Refuge in Rio Grande Valley,” David Lapan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Media Operations with the Department of Homeland Security, told ThinkProgress via email. “These geotech samples allow the architecture-engineer to map the actual below-ground conditions as part of the planning feedback process for CBP as it makes its tactical infrastructure decisions.”
A federal official told the Texas Observer that such construction would “essentially destroy the refuge.”
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife report from 2016 found that construction of the wall could threaten more than 100 species that are listed as endangered, threatened, or in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act. Construction for the wall could bring noise, trucks, and pollution to sensitive areas, disturbing both the habitat and animals which depend on it. And construction of the wall itself could cut off migration routes that animals rely on to find food, or for mating.
Despite the fact that the wall would run through ecologically sensitive areas, the Trump administration plans to move forward with construction without conducting an environmental impact study, which is usually required of large-scale federal projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
A 2005 counter-terrorism law known as REAL ID, passed following a recommendation from the 9/11 commission, gives the Department of Homeland Security authority to forgo environmental impact studies when the project is a matter of national security. Administration officials told Reuters that the department plans to use the legal authority granted under this law to begin construction without taking into account how a wall might adversely impact ecosystems or the environment. A CBP official told Reuters that the agency had already been given a NEPA waiver to begin taking soil samples from the Santa Ana refuge.
Construction of the border wall already faces one environmental lawsuit, from the Center for Biological Diversity and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ). The lawsuit argues that the administration must first conduct an environmental impact study before beginning construction of the wall, noting that a 2008 amendment to the REAL ID act requires the Department of Homeland Security to consult with the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and local stakeholders to ensure that the project is completed in such a way to minimize adverse impacts on the environment. The lawsuit also argues that the last time the government conducted an environmental impact study into the impact of border security operations was 2001, making that study incredibly outdated.
Potentially in an effort to placate environmentalists, President Trump has suggested putting solar panels along the border wall. Energy experts, however, have universally panned the idea, noting that the wall is both far from population centers and transmission lines — two factors that are typically necessary to get solar energy from a solar panel to anyone that could use it.
Despite repeated promises throughout the campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, at least one key Republican has promised to force a government shutdown unless funds for the wall’s construction are included in Congress’ next budget, despite the fact that a majority of Americans oppose funding the wall’s construction. That would mean that the American taxpayer would be left paying for the multibillion dollar project — while losing access to significant portions of a wildlife refuge, and national parks, meant for public use.