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Homeland Security To Waive Environmental Rules On Border Wall Projects

Aug 1, 2017
Originally published on August 1, 2017 6:41 pm

Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET

The Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that it will use its authority to bypass environmental laws and other regulations to "ensure the expeditious construction of barriers and roads" near the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego.

"The sector remains an area of high illegal entry for which there is an immediate need to improve current infrastructure and construct additional border barriers and roads," the agency said in a statement. "To begin to meet the need for additional border infrastructure in this area, DHS will implement various border infrastructure projects."

The waiver, which focuses on 15 miles of contiguous land stretching eastward from the Pacific Ocean, would make it easier for the agency to embark on those "infrastructure projects," which include building several prototypes of the border wall President Trump called for in a January executive action. The agency also plans to replace sections of the fence that stands in the area.

By using the waiver, it would be able to avoid the legal requirement to complete an environmental impact study before building on public lands. In fact, the agency says it has "the authority to waive all legal requirements" the Homeland Security secretary deems necessary "to deter illegal crossings in areas of high illegal entry into the United States."

And Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan tells NPR's Eric Westervelt this portion of the border could certainly be described as one of those areas.

"Last fiscal year 2016, Customs and Border Patrol apprehended more than 31,000 illegal aliens and seized about 1,300 pounds of cocaine just in the San Diego sector alone," Lapan explains.

Lapan also says it's not the first time the agency has used such a waiver, noting the department under Michael Chertoff, a homeland security secretary in George W. Bush's administration, invoked it five times.

Nevertheless, the move is likely to anger environmental activists, who have already lodged significant protests against Trump's proposed border wall project.

Member station KPBS points out that the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity already sued the federal government last month for failing "to prepare and publish legally required environmental impact analyses for the border wall."

"The proposed construction of the replacement border wall in San Diego, like many areas along the border lands, has a high concentration of endangered species," Brian Segee, the group's senior attorney, tells NPR. "There are a lot of impacts that can occur to the environment — especially in the absence of prior environmental studies."

"And that's exactly what these waivers do," Segee adds. "They create a lawless situation whereby DHS will undertake this massive boondoggle of a border wall project, and they will do it without the benefit of key environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act — the list goes on and on."

Still, DHS plans to forge ahead ... on the replacement fencing, at least.

Lapan says building of the prototypes has been delayed by another set of protests — this time lodged against the department by some of the contractors whose bids were not selected. One of those protests remains under consideration by the Government Accountability Office.

Lapan expects that work on the prototypes themselves might get underway as late as November.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

NPR's Brenda Wilson has the story.

BRENDA WILSON: PEPFAR, as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is often called, was first announced by President Bush at his State of the Union address in 2003. At the time, it got a lot of good press for being one of the largest commitments by any government to a single disease. It wasn't all sweetness and light. Conservatives wanted part of the money set aside for programs that preach abstinence before marriage. And last night, in calling for a continuation of PEPFAR, which has paid for life-sustaining anti-AIDS drugs, the president also quietly asked Congress to maintain funding for abstinence prevention.

GEORGE W: I ask you to maintain the principles that have changed behavior and made this program a success. And I call on you to double our initial commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS by approving an additional $30 billion over the next five years.

WILSON: Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies praised the president's proposal last night as a highlight of the Bush legacy.

STEPHEN MORRISON: It's calling for the enlargement to 2.5 million people of the numbers of persons who will be put on life-sustaining therapy for HIV/AIDS.

WILSON: In other words, nearly twice as many people with AIDS in developing countries as were covered before. What's more, Morrison says, the president's AIDS plan has helped preserve America's good standing in the world and restore a reputation that had been tarnished by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other events related to the war in Iraq.

MORRISON: The achievements in global public health centered in HIV/AIDS are a standout set of achievements in this period in which we've seen in the broader picture a dramatic slide and a need to really recover from that.

WILSON: But David Bryden of the Global AIDS Alliance, a frequent critic of the administration, says the president is playing tricks with the numbers. Sure, he is calling for $30 billion for the next five years, Bryden says, that's twice as much as he asked for in 2003. But Congress is already funding the global AIDS plan at that level.

DAVID BRYDEN: I think that it's really quite ironic that in the last year of his presidency, he's, in effect, pulling the rug out from under his own program by proposing that it be flat-funded for the next five years at a time when the epidemic is still expanding and when we really should be aspiring to expand our response to meet the needs of children who have really been left out.

WILSON: The U.S. isn't the only country contributing to AIDS relief. And the head of U.S. Global AIDS Program, Mark Dybul, says that President Bush has used the program to get the rest of the world to respond.

MARK DYBUL: But he took that commitment and went to the G8 and got them to commit to double it. So because of the American people's commitment, the world is now committed to $60 billion over the next several years.

WILSON: Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

NORRIS: And you can read NPR's fact-checking of the president's State of the Union comments on health care and other topics at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.