The Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that it would waive environmental and other laws to ensure the "expeditious construction" of barriers and roads near the U.S.-Mexico border in the San Diego region. Environmentalists have warned that extending the border wall could damage ecosystems and threaten wildlife habitats.
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President Trump's plan to build a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border took a small step forward today. The Department Of Homeland Security announced it would use its power to go around environmental and other laws to help expedite construction in the San Diego area. The department hopes to start building border wall prototypes and replacement fencing later this summer.
Environmentalists say it could damage fragile ecosystems and threaten wildlife. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Customs and Border Protection are already taking soil samples and conducting tests along sections of the U.S.-Mexico border as they decide what kinds of barriers to build. With today's announcement, Homeland Security can waive environmental and other laws as it expands on that work later this summer on a contiguous 15-mile stretch near San Diego from the ocean eastward.
Trump says he wants the wall to stop smugglers shuttling people and drugs across the border. David Lapan, spokesman for DHS, notes that this area is one of the busiest in the nation.
DAVID LAPAN: Last Fiscal year 2016, Border Patrol apprehended more than 31,000 illegal aliens and seized about 1,300 pounds of cocaine just in the San Diego sector alone. So this waiver will allow us to expedite construction of barriers to address that kind of illegal activity in the area.
WESTERVELT: This is not the first time federal agencies have gotten around environmental and land management laws for border security. Congress has given Homeland Security the authority to do so. DHS used that power five times from 2005 to 2008 when the Bush administration constructed physical barriers on the border. Lapan says the waivers don't mean the department is going to ignore environmental impact.
DHS, he says, will find ways to be as environmentally friendly as possible. But environmentalists up and down the border area are deeply skeptical. And they're responding with lawsuits. They say the waivers could end up hurting fragile ecosystems and endangered species. The California-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in July alleging that the Trump administration is in violation of several environmental laws in the San Diego area. Brian Segee, a senior attorney at the center, says today's waivers are dangerous.
BRIAN SEGEE: They create a lawless situation whereby DHS will undertake this massive boondoggle of a border wall construction project and they will do it without the benefit of key environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, the list goes on and on.
WESTERVELT: By the way, the center's lawsuit is scheduled to be heard by the federal judge that Donald Trump attacked during the campaign because of his Mexican heritage. Meantime, DHS has picked some contractors to build border wall prototypes but some who were not picked have filed protests delaying the project. And funding for Trump's wall is caught up in the larger budget battle in Washington.
A bill that passed the House recently allocates $1.6 billion for 74 additional miles of barriers in the southwest. But Senate Democrats say they will work to block that funding. Eric Westervelt, NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.