Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Call for Public Comments About the Border Wall in Texas

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is accepting public comments about the Rio Grande Valley “Tactical Infrastructure” Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). (Guide to the EIS is below.)

Submit your comments by December 31, 2007 in one of the following ways:
a) Electronically through the website at http://www.borderfencenepa.com/
b) By email to: RGVcomments@BorderFenceNEPA.com
c) By mail to: Rio Grande Valley Tactical Infrastructure EIS, c/o e²M, 2751 Prosperity Avenue, Suite 200, Fairfax, Virginia 22031
d) By fax to: (757) 282-7697
**Be sure to include your name and address**

What is an Environmental Impact Statement?

Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) are required by the National Environmental Policy Act “for all major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” An EIS must fully describe the environment of a project area, consider a reasonable range of alternatives to the proposed action, and conduct a thorough impacts analysis for each alternative. The Draft EIS, by law, must determine and consider the effect of 70 miles of border walls on the human environment as well as the natural environment.

Although the border wall is an enormous project that is certain to damage the communities and natural areas of the Rio Grande Valley, the Draft EIS is a hastily-written document with glaring omissions and unfounded assertions. It is based on only 7 days of on-the-ground survey work. In addition, no biological, cultural, or engineering surveys have yet been conducted on the 14 national wildlife refuge tracts slated to get walls. In short, the Draft EIS is putting the cart before the horse in promoting the border wall as the preferred alternative before even bothering to fully study the impacts of the border wall or alternatives to the wall.

Use the following information from the “Tactical Infrastructure” Draft EIS to guide your comments:

Alternatives to the wall were not seriously considered in the Draft EIS:
· By law the Draft EIS must consider alternatives to the proposed project. However, the document rejects a number of alternatives to building the border wall, including increasing the number of Border Patrol agents or using “virtual fencing,” without any indication that they were seriously considered or evaluated.
· The Draft EIS implies that the required “No Action Alternative” means doing nothing and dismisses it out of hand. However, taking “no action” in this case means the continuation of current Border Patrol operations which have been highly successful. In fiscal year 2007 these led to a decrease in apprehensions of 34% in the Rio Grande Valley, dropping apprehensions to their lowest level in 15 years.
· The Draft EIS wrongly assumes that border walls are effective. They are not. The Congressional Research Service found that the wall in San Diego “did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border.” Indeed, fiscal year 2007 apprehensions increased by 7% in San Diego, where they have triple-layer fencing.

The wall’s effect on flood risk does not appear to have been seriously studied in the Draft EIS:
· The steel mesh used for the wall is treated in the Draft EIS as permeable to water. In a flooding event, even a standard chain link fence becomes clogged with debris and blocks the flow of water. The photographs included show a mesh that is far tighter than standard chain link, which will certainly become clogged with debris during any flooding event.
· The words “hurricane” and “tropical storm” do not appear even once in the Draft EIS, despite the fact that the Rio Grande Valley is located in a hurricane zone.
· The Draft EIS found that the border wall’s impact on water flow in the Rio Grande Basin is expected to be “negligible,” but they do not cite any hydrological studies to back up this claim. Nor do they take into account the existing problems of the flood-control levee system along the river. With no studies to model whether a border wall would channel flood waters, the Department of Homeland Security is recklessly endangering lives and property in the event of a hurricane or torrential rain.

When considering the wall’s effect on wildlife habitat and endangered species, the Draft EIS does not address crucial issues:
· The Draft EIS concludes that “the conversion of 508 acres to support tactical infrastructure is a minimal cumulative impact compared to other development” (Section 5.11). This narrow focus is misleading, as placing a barrier across a tract of wildlife habitat will have a negative impact far beyond the acreage on which the wall sits.
· The border wall will bisect many national wildlife refuge tracts; many others will have their northern border walled off. The walls will prevent wildlife dispersal to and from the river and block north-south travel corridors. This fragmentation undermines the integrity of the wildlife corridor, a series of land tracts meant to allow wildlife travel along the river. Further, refuge personnel will be unable to properly manage wildlife habitat, as fighting wildfires or controlling prescribed burns will be too dangerous behind walls.
· The border wall will deny wildlife access to the river, in many places the only water source, and the Draft EIS does not address this at all. Many tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge will be severed from the river. Such tracts were purchased and incorporated into the National Wildlife Refuge System because their river access made them valuable habitat.
· The Draft EIS claims that 150-175 acres of habitat suitable for the federally endangered ocelot and jaguarundi will be destroyed. It does not address the fact that the wall will separate populations of these endangered cats, preventing them from finding mates. Reducing their genetic diversity will increase the likelihood of their extinction. In addition, there are approximately 20 other federally threatened and endangered species in the RGV that could be adversely impacted.
· Extensive nighttime flood lighting will be associated with the wall segments, but there is no thorough analysis of the possible impacts of this on wildlife.
· There is no analysis of the possible impacts to wildlife of the roads associated with the walls.
· The proposed “wildlife migratory portals,” tiny vertical slots only a couple of inches wide, represent a purely token effort at wildlife mitigation. Animals larger than a cockroach or a starving field mouse will be unable to pass through the wall to reach water or mates.

The Draft EIS seems intent on ignoring the Migratory Bird Treaty Act:
· The Draft EIS states that construction of the border wall is planned for the Spring of 2008 and due to continue until the end of the year. However, it also contains a recommendation that “any groundbreaking construction activities should be performed before migratory birds have returned (approx. March 1) or after all young have fledged (approx. July 31) to avoid incidental take” (Section This recommendation should be followed and no construction should occur during this time to avoid killing nesting birds.
· The Draft EIS does not address the issue of long-term habitat loss for migratory bird species. During the spring and fall migrations, millions of birds funnel through the Rio Grande Valley. Many that arrive have flown hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico. They require intact habitat to rest and refuel, and without it they may be too weak to complete their journey.

The Draft EIS makes baseless claims about the wall’s affect on the RGV economy:
· Ecotourism brings more that $125 million to the Rio Grande Valley annually from 200, 000 tourists and creates 2,500 jobs in the local economy. As national wildlife refuge lands, state parks, and private reserves are lost, degraded, or rendered inaccessible and endemic and migratory species decline or are displaced because of the border wall, there will be less incentive for nature enthusiasts to visit the area. The Draft EIS makes the absurd assertion that a wall would actually bring in more visitors because they would feel safer.
· 23 million Mexican nationals visit the Valley each year, contributing $3 billion to the local economy and supporting 41,000 jobs, $560 million in wages, and $203 million in business taxes. The Draft EIS states that the wall will have “no long-term impacts” on the local economy because visitors will be able to cross at ports of entry. It completely ignores the message that a wall sends. If a store displayed a window sign that said “Mexicans Keep Out” they would not get much business from Mexican shoppers even if their doors were wide open. The border wall will present just such a message, and will certainly impact retail sales.
· There is a recognition that taking hundreds of acres of farmland out of production will have negative impacts on landowners’, and that it will be harder to access to parts of their land. There is no discussion of the impact that this will have on the ability of farms to remain viable, or on the Valley’s economy.
· The Draft EIS states that, “Minor to moderate adverse indirect impacts would be expected from the imminent dislocation of some families due to property acquisition.” For a low-income, Texas family evicted from their home by the federal government, the impact is by no means indirect or minor.

The Draft EIS ignores Environmental Justice rules:
· Although the Rio Grande Valley’s population is over 85% minority, and its border communities are some of the poorest in the nation, the Draft EIS finds that the border wall will not have a disproportionate impact on minority or low income populations. Rather than address this they manipulate statistics: “Of the proposed 70 miles of tactical infrastructure, substantially less than half is within census bureau tracts that have a higher proportion of minority or low-income residents” (Section 5. 5.11). Instead of counting the people who will be impacted, the Draft EIS counts the miles, using the many uninhabited areas to dilute, at least on paper, the wall’s impact on minority and low-income populations.

It is crucial that everyone with these and other concerns about the border wall submit them in writing. The Department of Homeland Security will interpret silence as a lack of interest. The deadline for comments is December 31, 2007.