Critics Blast DHS Environmental Waivers that Clear Way for Border Wall

WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security confirmed Wednesday that it will waive dozens of environmental, health and other laws to clear the way for construction on about 58 miles of border barriers, including 12 miles of fencing near Yuma.

The move was quickly attacked by lawmakers and environmental activists, who accused the administration of endangering human and wildlife safety to satisfy the “nativist rhetoric” behind President Donald Trump’s “vanity wall.”

“The nativist rhetoric coming out of D.C., coming from the Trump administration, is so detached from reality,” said Laiken Jordahl with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The public lands and the natural beauty that we have along the border are truly is a national treasure … that really bring a lot of inspiration and joy to people who visit these areas.”

But those areas are also where there is “an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States in the project area,” DHS said in Federal Register notices posted Wednesday.

Those notices said Acting Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan would invoke the department’s authority to waive more than 30 regulations – ranging from the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act to the Eagle Protection Act and Endangered Species Act – to pave the way for border wall projects in Arizona and New Mexico.

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“In order to ensure the expeditious construction of the barriers and roads in the project area, I have determined that it is necessary that I exercise the authority that is vested in me,” McAleenan said in the notice.

The notices are for 8 miles of wall near Yuma, about 46 near the Columbus Port of Entry in New Mexico, and another 4.1 miles near San Luis. The first two projects would be built in part with Defense Department funds that target drug trafficking.

The DHS notice said that there were more than 57,000 immigrants apprehended last year in the Yuma and El Paso sectors of the border where the proposed construction would take place. It also said officers seized more than 23,100 pounds of marijuana, 1,900 pounds of methamphetamine, 420 pounds of cocaine and 142 pounds of heroin there last year.

The projects call for replacing existing vehicle and pedestrian barriers with new 18- to 30-foot-high sections of border wall that “will further Border Patrol’s ability to deter and prevent illegal crossings,” the notices said.

Waiving the regulations will speed the project, but at a cost to the border region’s rich biodiversity, something people don’t always comprehend, said Jordahl.

“So often the borderlands are portrayed as this barren desert when in reality the lands are teeming with life,” he said, adding that “93 species would be threatened by the border wall.”

Wildlife is not the only thing that would be harmed. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said the decision to waive environmental protections would also harm people living on or near the border.

“The Trump Administration consistently stoops to new lows when it comes to building the President’s vanity wall – even if it endangers the public health of our communities and the environment we call home,” Grijalva said in a statement released by his office Wednesday.

Jordahl, who lives in Tucson, said the excavation for the wall would damage wildlife while the wall itself could disrupt habitats and ecosystems, something someone living far from border communities cannot appreciate.

Grijalva echoed that sentiment, accusing Trump of playing political games instead of thinking about locals.

“President Trump is sending a clear message to border residents: his political agenda is more important than their homes, health, and livelihoods,” he said.

-Cronkite News video by Haddi Meyer

Rep. Raúl Grijalva and Interior Secretary Zinke trade insults

WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blasted Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, on Twitter Friday after the congressman wrote an editorial calling on Zinke to resign “immediately” in the face of multiple, ongoing ethics investigations.

Grijalva, long a critic of Zinke’s and of his management of the Interior Department, said in the op-ed in Friday’s USA Today that the “sheer scope of his (Zinke’s) well-documented scandals” demand that the secretary resign.

Those include at least one inspector general’s investigation that has been referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, Grijalva said.

Zinke, in a blistering personal Twitter attack, said several hours later that it was Grijalva who should step down.

The tweet said Grijalva can’t “think straight from the bottom of the bottle” and that the lawmaker should resign and pay back the “hush money and the tens of thousands” of dollars that Interior has spent “investigating unfounded allegations” from Congress.

The tweet appeared to be a reference to news reports of a $48,000 settlement Grijalva reportedly paid a former staffer in 2015, who accused the Tucson Democrat of being drunk at work and creating a hostile work environment.

Zinke’s attack was leveled at a man who is expected to become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee next year, the panel with direct oversight of the Interior Department.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaking at Grand Canyon National Park (Photo courtesy the Department of the Interior)

Even before the tweeted response, Grijalva vowed the committee would be taking a closer look at Zinke and his department once Democrats take over the House next year.

“Should I chair the committee in January, as I hope to do, those questions will only intensify as part of my and my colleagues’ legitimate oversight duties,” Grijalva wrote.

The Interior Department’s inspector general opened an investigation a month ago into Zinke’s land dealings in his home state of Montana – what Grijalva said was at least the 17th investigation into Zinke since he was named secretary last year.

The probe focuses on whether Zinke used his position as secretary to increase the value of land his family owns in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, by dealing with local developers and officials at Halliburton, an oil contractor.

Other investigations of Zinke have looked into whether he ordered climate change reports censored by the department, reports that the agency would spend $139,000 on three set of office doors and whether he was inappropriately promoting Make America Great Again socks.

Zinke has also been accused of using taxpayer dollars to fund trips on private jets, taking inappropriate amounts of leave and providing government perks to his wife.

The negative publicity may have attracted the attention of the White House, with published reports indicating that Zinke is among a handful of Cabinet secretaries the president is eyeing for replacement.

In his editorial, Grijalva said Zinke has not answered to any of the scandals, and “this silence is insulting to the American people.” He said stepping down to allow for some damage control is the least Zinke could do.

Grijalva also criticized Zinke’s management of the department, which has included the downsizing of national monuments like Bears Ears and plans to cut “thousands” of permanent positions, among other changes.

Grijlava said a resignation would not get rid of the philosophy that permeates the department, but he still thinks it is important for the Natural Resources Committee to take a stand.

“This is, I think, an alert to the Interior that we’re going to hold them accountable regardless,” Grijalva said late Friday morning. “We’re going to question that philosophy.”

When contacted for comment, an Interior spokeswoman said only that “The Secretary’s statement speaks for itself.”

Other members of Congress rushed to Grijalva’s defense, including Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York, who joined in the call for Zinke’s resignation.

Grijalva said Zinke’s tweet appeared to be aimed at deflecting serious policy issues with personal attacks.

“The American people know who I’m here to serve, and they know in whose interests I’m acting,” Grijalva said in a statement Friday. “They don’t know the same about Secretary Zinke.”