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Grijalva joins BioDiv lawsuit over environmental impact of border wall

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity launched a lawsuit Wednesday to force the Trump administration to consider the environmental impact of border enforcement, including the construction of a wall, along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Grijalva, whose district includes nearly 300 miles of borderlands, has been a staunch critic of the new administration's policies on border security and immigration.

On Tuesday, Grijalva called newly installed Attorney General Jeff Sessions a "white supremacist" after Sessions pushed for increased prosecutions of undocumented immigrants during a speech in Nogales. 

"American environmental laws are some of the oldest and strongest in the world, and they should apply to the borderlands just as they do everywhere else," said Grijalva in a statement about the suit. "These laws exist to protect the health and well-being of our people, our wildlife, and the places they live." 

"Trump’s wall — and his fanatical approach to our southern border — will do little more than perpetuate human suffering while irrevocably damaging our public lands and the wildlife that depend on them," he said. 

The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental organization that has used activism and lawsuits in the past to force federal officials to follow environmental regulations, joined in the lawsuit with Grijalva. 

"Trump’s border wall will divide and destroy the incredible communities and wild landscapes along the border," said Kierán Suckling, the group’s executive director.

"Endangered species like jaguars and ocelots don’t observe international boundaries and should not be sacrificed for unnecessary border militarization. Their survival and recovery depends on being able to move long distances across the landscape and repopulate places on both sides of the border where they’ve lived for thousands of years," Suckling said. 

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If successful, the lawsuit would force officials with the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to undertake a "comprehensive review of the social, economic, and environmental costs of the border wall."

30-foot wall proposed

The lawsuit comes just as CBP announced in March that it was accepting designs for two proposed border wall designs, including a "physically imposing" wall of reinforced concrete rising at least 30 feet high. 

The White House has already sought $2.6 billion for the construction of the wall, including $999 million for the "planning, design, and construction" of the first installment of the border wall. 

Estimates for the total cost of a new wall vary widely, however, an internal estimate by DHS said that the wall would cost as much as $21.6 billion and take more than three years to construct. 

While many other federal projects are governed by environmental regulations, in 2005 Congress passed the REAL ID act, which included a section that gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive regulations "as necessary to ensure expeditious construction" of barriers, roads, and other infrastructure. 

Following the law's passage, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff used the authority at least five times from 2005 to 2009 to "waive in their entirety" more than 37 federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, to build more than 550 miles of border wall and roads along the southern border.

Chertoff, and his successor under the Obama administration Jeh Johnson, waived the environmental impacts of new construction and border enforcement throughout the southwest, including protected federal lands like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Big Bend National Park. 

However, the lawsuit would force DHS and CBP to prepare a "programmatic environmental impact statement" analyzing the environmental impact of road construction, off-road vehicle patrols, the installation of high-intensity lightning, as well as the construction of base camps and checkpoints. 

The lawsuit notes that the NEPA requires federal officials to update their understanding of the environmental implications of their actions when "an agency makes substantial changes in the proposed action," however federal officials have not updated the review for more than 15 years. 

"Defendants have not updated their programmatic environmental analysis for the southern border enforcement program since late 2001, more than 15 years ago, despite the clear presence of the regulatory factors compelling the preparation of supplemental environmental analysis." 

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DHS would not comment on the lawsuit. In an email, Jenny Burke, an agency spokeswoman, wrote: "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation." 

A report created last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that the construction of a new concrete wall along the Southwestern border would have a negative impact on 111 endangered species, including 108 species of migratory birds, four wildlife refugees and fish hatcheries, while deleteriously affecting "an unknown number of protected wetlands." 

This would include the northern jaguar—at least three have been spotted prowling the mountains in Southern Arizona—as well as jaguarundi, ocelots, Mexican gray wolves, black-tailed prairie dogs, and the Sonoran pronghorn. 

In the lawsuit, CBD noted that the impacts of DHS actions have been a "central environmental issue throughout" the NEPA process. 

"Scientific study of the impacts of the southern border enforcement program was largely absent" from a 1994 and 2001 environmental review, the lawsuit said and in recent years "scientific understanding of these impacts has dramatically progressed." 

Neither study included the affect of the wall on the northern jaguar, or black bears, the lawsuit said. Additionally, the lawsuit noted that one study, written in 2009, assessed that the environmental impact of border enforcement affected not only the environs of Mexico and the United States, but also the environments of 20 other countries because border enforcement could sever the migration patterns of dozens of species that migrate across two continents. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The border wall east of Nogales, Arizona.