Feds hold Q&A about border wall during webinar - Brownsville Herald: Valley

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Feds hold Q&A about border wall during webinar

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Posted: Friday, November 2, 2018 12:00 pm

Property owners and other citizens hoping to express concerns about border wall construction to the federal government on a face-to-face basis won’t get the chance after U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection officials confirmed there will not be any more in-person public forums held on the matter.

This and additional announcements were made earlier this week during a public webinar held by Border Patrol and CBP officials for important stakeholders and property owners. A BP official said the meetings will be held via webinar moving forward.

The webinar comes after conservationists and others demanded more forums and public hearings in a letter, accusing the federal agencies for lacking transparency regarding border wall construction. The open comment period will end Nov. 6, the same day as the midterm elections.

Nearly two weeks after conservation groups filed a lawsuit in response to waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to expedite the construction of walls in the Rio Grande Valley, members of the public were allowed to join an online meeting with the aforementioned officials. Residents questions related to the construction of barriers in and around their land, specifically as it pertains to the Valley as well as California.

Laiken Jordahl, an organizer with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity who participated in the Q&A with BP and CBP officials on Tuesday, said the federal officials decided against in-person meetings. Public meetings have not been held since summer 2017, when wall construction plans were first announced, save for a few meetings with local stakeholders, including mayors and other local officials.

Officials made it clear during the Q&A they would only hold webinars for future discussions on the project, according to Jordahl

“I think it’s not just (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) that has increasingly sought to suppress public comment on management plans, and other federal actions,” Jordahl said. “Throughout the Department of the Interior there have been all of these different efforts to quash public input, in terms of agency management plans. We’ve seen this shift toward wanting to hold webinars like this, which I really think it’s a cowardly substitute for meeting face-to-face with the public.”

Jordahl said it was outrageous that the public is being denied in-person meetings when considering the impact construction will have on people and their property.

“The amount of destruction this project will cause, it necessitates extensive public input,” he said. “Two webinars that are only open to those that have internet access and know how to use a computer is a really poor substitute for public confrontation.”

The aforementioned lawsuit, filed Oct. 18 in Washington, comes on the heels of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen filing environmental waivers intended to expedite wall and road construction in Cameron and Hidalgo counties on Oct. 10 and Oct. 11.

In its filing, representatives from multiple conservation groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund challenge Nielsen’s issuance of the waivers filed last week.

National Butterfly Center
National Butterfly Center, August 3, 2017 in Mission. Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com

The issuance of waivers by Nielsen confirmed what many had known for months locally, that construction would cut through places like the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, and the historic La Lomita Chapel, a more than 150-year-old shrine behind the levee in Mission.

During the webinar, Border Patrol Environmental Protection Specialist Paul R. Enriquez addressed some of these local environmentally sensitive areas, but would not rule out La Lomita being affected by the construction. Specifically, the shrine’s proximity to the levee would put it in the path of the 150-foot patrol road constructed in addition to levee walls.

The waivers filed by Nielsen will also allow bulldozing of a 150-foot “enforcement zone” south of the wall and installation of surveillance equipment, lighting and other infrastructure.

The issuance of waivers would speed up construction of 18 miles of 30-feet high, levee-style border walls in Hidalgo County, as well as gates and other border wall infrastructure in Cameron County. This comes during an open comment period intended to allow for opponents of the construction to give reasons why it should not move forward.

Jordahl added that officials said 270 “right of entry” requests had been sent to Hidalgo County property owners, and that they expect another 300 requests to be sent to landowners and people that would be affected by construction in Starr County, where 18-foot steel bollard fences accompanied by vehicle and pedestrian gates would be constructed.

La Lomita
La Lomita along the banks of the Rio Grande in Mission, where the proposed border wall may be built. Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com

La Lomita in Mission was the site of a large protest last August when word of potential construction near the structure’s levees spelled its doom.

The area surrounding the chapel’s grounds also provides Our Lady of Guadalupe congregates a place to picnic and hold cookouts on the banks of the river.

But BP officials added that fixed structures like La Lomita were being considered and that the “enforcement zone may have to shift a little” and be reduced, saying there are discussions with local leaders about how to best construct levees in that area.

Officials would not definitively say that the chapel was safe, instead saying that those responsible for designing the barriers in that area would make the final determination.

“It seemed like they were shifting responsibility away from CBP, from the agency, on a lot of those issues, which I don’t think really makes any sense,” he said. “I mean of course the agency has the last say as to whether or not their enforcement zone is going to plow through the chapel or not.”

As for Bentsen, CBP officials would not say if construction through the park would lead to the park being closed, and only said they’re working with the state to “minimize impacts,” and that the state would have to make such a decision.

Jean Su, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and the conservation groups argue in their suit that Nielsen and DHS do not have authority to waive the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act or other laws that protect clean air, clean water, public lands and wildlife in the borderlands.

According to the lawsuit, the waiver authority, granted in 2006, expired years ago and is an unconstitutional delegation of power to the department. The waiver authority applied to border wall construction under the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which required the agency to build hundreds of miles of border barriers. That mandate was met several years ago, with the department using REAL ID authority five times to waive more than 35 laws on 625 miles of border wall and barrier construction.

Conservationists and others are also concerned about the damage the construction could cause in environmentally sensitive areas.

border fence
The border fence and levee pass through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo. Callie Richmond | The Texas Tribune

They argue that the levee-style walls planned for construction will block the natural migration of wildlife and cause dangerous flooding.

Dozens of rare wildlife species, including the ocelot, jaguarundi and aplomado falcon, make their homes in this region of Texas, as do hundreds of species of migratory birds and butterflies. The area is also within the historic jaguar habitat.

Officials also said that contracts for these construction jobs would be awarded in November and December, with construction on these projects expected to begin as early next spring.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, a local environmentalist group, announced that it will hold its own forum, the “People’s town hall against the Wall,” on Nov. 11, when people can voice their concerns over wall construction in the Valley.

The town hall is scheduled for 2 p.m. in front and across the street from the McAllen Border Patrol station in the 3000 block of West Military Highway, according to a release from the Sierra Club.

lzazueta@themonitor.com

 

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