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New engineering report finds privately built border wall will fail

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

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It’s not a matter of if a privately built border fence along the shores of the Rio Grande will fail, it’s a matter of when, according to a new engineering report on the troubled project.

The report is one of two new studies set to be filed in federal court this week that found numerous deficiencies in the 3-mile border fence, built this year by North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel. The reports confirm earlier reporting from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, which found that segments of the structure were in danger of overturning due to extensive erosion if not fixed and properly maintained. Fisher dismissed the concerns as normal post-construction issues.

Donations that paid for part of the border fence are at the heart of an indictment against members of the We Build the Wall nonprofit, which raised more than $25 million to help President Donald Trump build a border wall.

Former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage and two others connected to the organization are accused of siphoning donor money to pay off personal debt and fund lavish lifestyles. All four, who face up to 20 years in prison on each of the two counts they face, have pleaded not guilty, and Bannon has called the charges a plot to stop border wall construction.

We Build the Wall, whose executive board is made up of influential immigration hard-liners like Bannon, Kris Kobach and Tom Tancredo, contributed $1.5 million of the cost of the $42 million private border fence project south of Mission, Texas.

Last year, the nonprofit also hired Fisher to build a half-mile fence segment in Sunland Park, New Mexico, outside El Paso.

Company president Tommy Fisher, a frequent guest on Fox News, had called the Rio Grande fence the “Lamborghini” of border walls and bragged that his company’s methods could help Trump reach his Election Day goal of about 500 new miles of barriers along the southern border.

Instead, one engineer who reviewed the two reports on behalf of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune likened Fisher’s fence to a used Toyota Yaris.

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“It seems like they are cutting corners everywhere,” said Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. “It’s not a Lamborghini, it’s a $500 used car.”

Since Fisher’s companies embarked on construction of the Rio Grande fence, the Trump administration has awarded about $2 billion in federal contracts to the firms to build segments of the border wall in other locations.

Fisher agreed to the inspection as part of ongoing lawsuits against Fisher Sand and Gravel filed last year by the National Butterfly Center and the International Boundary and Water Commission. They unsuccessfully sought to convince a federal judge to stop the construction of the project until the potential impacts of the wall on the Rio Grande could be determined.

Mark Tompkins, an environmental engineer hired by the wildlife refuge, noted in his report that widespread erosion and scouring occurred after heavy rain events such as Hurricane Hanna in July, but that the fence has yet to experience a flood of the Rio Grande.

“Fisher Industries’ private bollard fence will fail during extreme high flow events,” concluded Tompkins, who specializes in river management.

Donations that paid for part of the border fence are at the heart of an indictment against members of the We Build the Wall nonprofit, which raised more than $25 million to help President Donald Trump build a border wall.

Former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage and two others connected to the organization are accused of siphoning donor money to pay off personal debt and fund lavish lifestyles. All four, who face up to 20 years in prison on each of the two counts they face, have pleaded not guilty, and Bannon has called the charges a plot to stop border wall construction.

We Build the Wall, whose executive board is made up of influential immigration hard-liners like Bannon, Kris Kobach and Tom Tancredo, contributed $1.5 million of the cost of the $42 million private border fence project south of Mission, Texas.

Last year, the nonprofit also hired Fisher to build a half-mile fence segment in Sunland Park, New Mexico, outside El Paso.

Company president Tommy Fisher, a frequent guest on Fox News, had called the Rio Grande fence the “Lamborghini” of border walls and bragged that his company’s methods could help Trump reach his Election Day goal of about 500 new miles of barriers along the southern border.

Support TucsonSentinel.com today, because a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson.

Instead, one engineer who reviewed the two reports on behalf of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune likened Fisher’s fence to a used Toyota Yaris.

“It seems like they are cutting corners everywhere,” said Alex Mayer, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. “It’s not a Lamborghini, it’s a $500 used car.”

Since Fisher’s companies embarked on construction of the Rio Grande fence, the Trump administration has awarded about $2 billion in federal contracts to the firms to build segments of the border wall in other locations.

Fisher agreed to the inspection as part of ongoing lawsuits against Fisher Sand and Gravel filed last year by the National Butterfly Center and the International Boundary and Water Commission. They unsuccessfully sought to convince a federal judge to stop the construction of the project until the potential impacts of the wall on the Rio Grande could be determined.

Mark Tompkins, an environmental engineer hired by the wildlife refuge, noted in his report that widespread erosion and scouring occurred after heavy rain events such as Hurricane Hanna in July, but that the fence has yet to experience a flood of the Rio Grande.

“Fisher Industries’ private bollard fence will fail during extreme high flow events,” concluded Tompkins, who specializes in river management.

Trump tried to distance himself from the private fence after the ProPublica/Tribune stories, saying that he had never agreed with it and that it had been done to make him look bad. He again distanced himself from the project and We Build the Wall after the charges against Bannon and the others.

“When I read about it, I didn’t like it,” he said. “It was showboating and maybe looking for funds. But you’ll have to see what happens.”

Last November, We Build the Wall representatives met with Customs and Border Protection officials about donating the group’s first border wall project — a half-mile fence in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just outside El Paso. According to a memo obtained by The Nation, CBP called it an “overall positive meet and greet.”

But the federal agency identified several areas of concern with the Sunland Park project, including the possibility that it would require an environmental assessment, but also the fact that Fisher Industries had inflated the speed with which it could complete the project.

“Their performance on this small project shows that some claims may have been inflated due to lack of experience with this type of work,” the memo states.

Fisher has said he wants to donate the Rio Grande fence to the federal government as well, although it’s unclear whether the government will take it. The fence likely will come with a hefty tax bill if not donated, after Hidalgo County recently appraised the land’s value at more than $20 million, which Fisher said his company will fight.

The next court hearing regarding the pending federal lawsuits is scheduled for Sept. 10.

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Brenda Bazán for The Texas Tribune

The 3-mile border fence along the shore of the Rio Grande will fail during extreme flooding, according to an engineering report that is set to be filed in federal court this week.

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