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Spurred by Grijalva, federal watchdog to review Trump's border wall construction

At the urging of U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the Government Accountability Office is launching a review the impact of border wall construction under the Trump administration.

In a letter to Grijalva in his position as the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, the federal watchdog said lats week that it would examine the impacts of the U.S.-Mexico border wall on "natural and cultural resources along the southwestern border." 

In May, Grijalva demanded a review of the wall, arguing that "in an effort to expedite construction of the border wall, the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security blatantly abused its sweeping and potentially unconstitutional authority to waive all laws and legal requirements standing in the way." 

Under federal law, the Homeland Security Secretary may waive dozens of environmental laws to further border construction. 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 head of DHS 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. 

"Before President Trump took office, this waiver authority had only been used seven times in its history. The Trump administration used it 29 times," Grijalva said. 

As late as April 2020, DHS was issuing new waivers for construction for around 15 miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley. 

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"The laws that the Trump administration waived included critical environmental and public health protections—like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and Clean Air Act—and Native American cultural resource protections," Grijlava wrote to the GAO. "They ripped through pristine landscapes like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, literally bulldozed and blasted sacred Native American sites, and drained the fragile desert ecosystem of vital groundwater resources. This careless, lawless action inflicted catastrophic harm on border lands and communities, much of which is irreversible." 

Grijalva, whose district includes nearly 300 miles of borderlands, has remained a stalwart critic of border wall construction. In April 2017, he joined a lawsuit with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity 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. 

"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 2017 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. 

Grijlava also lambasted how DHS reviews the environmental impacts of construction. In his letter to the GAO, Grijlava wrote that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the component agency that includes U.S. Border Patrol, does not work with "affected stakeholders" to complete the agency's own Environmental Stewardship Plans. 

Under the waiver, CBP is "supposed to assign individual monitors" to ensure that the ESPs are followed.  "According to CBP, ESPs are very similar in approach and content to traditional National Environmental Policy Act documents and were created to fulfill the Secretary of Homeland Security’s commitment to responsible environmental stewardship," he wrote. 

"Nevertheless, affected stakeholders, such as the Tohono O'odham Nation, have reported irreparable harm to natural and cultural resources, such as Quitobaquito Springs and other sacred sites from border wall construction—even with CBP’s assessments," Grijalva wrote. 

The construction around Quitobaquito, one of a very few viable water sources in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and an important part of the culture and history of the Hia C-ed O’odham, became a lightning rod for criticism over the area's 43-mile project. Through late 2019 and 2020, environmental groups, activists, and members of the Tohono O'odham protested the construction. Despite their protests and a series of lawsuits, contractors for the federal government continued construction, slashing through saguaro cacti and shattering the rocky mantle of the nearby Monument Hill with explosives. 

As Grijalva noted, in Feb. 2021 a coalition of nearly 70 environmental groups, civil-rights organizations, and tribal entities sent a report to members of Congress and the Biden administration describing the impacts of the border wall for endangered species, included the northern jaguar and Sonoran pronghorn. 

Overall, CBP has about 701 miles of "primary barriers" and around 70 miles of "secondary" fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Before the Trump administration, there was about 197 miles of pedestrian fencing, and 16 miles of secondary fencing, and the agency added about 450 miles of border barriers at a cost of at least $15 billion. This includes money pulled from the DHS and the Department of Defense,  including money from a U.S. Treasury fund fueled by drug seizures.

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Included was about $3.6 billion in funds siphoned from military construction projects for the wall. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October that the Trump-era maneuver was illegal, and forced a halt to 11 border wall projects, including four in Arizona. Following his inauguration, President Joe Biden ordered a halt to border wall construction, terminating a national emergency declaration used as a pretext to justify some funding diversions for the wall. Biden also ordered a "close review of the legality of the funding and contracting methods used, and to determine the best way to redirect funds that were diverted by the prior administration to fund wall construction." 

In his letter, Grijlava pushed the GAO to examine the barriers completed over the last 10 years,  how CBP "assessed potential impacts" to the land, and how CBP's own assessments "aligned with those of stakeholders" including tribal groups, other community members, federal agency scientists, and environmental organizations.

Among more than two dozen reviews conducted during the Trump administration, CBP found "no significant impact" to the environment, ranging from a project to install more Integrated Fixed Towers for surveillance on the Tohono O'odham Nation near Ajo in April 2017 to the construction of new stations in Yuma and Nogales. 

Meanwhile, a plan that overviewed the construction of 40 miles of new border barriers in Santa Cruz and Cochise County, along with updates to another 34 miles, relies on monitors for the protection of state-listed species and cultural items, but the plan allows for "unavoidable impacts" and relies on "mitigation" efforts.

Grijalva asked the GAO to consider its own options for mitigating the impacts of physical barriers. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Sections of the Trump-era border wall near Sasabe, Arizona in September 2020.

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