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Trump administration waives environmental review to replace more San Diego border fencing

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, 12:33 p.m.
A portion of the secondary border fence winds through Smuggler’s Gulch between Tijuana and San Diego. (Hayne Palmour IV/U-T)
A portion of the secondary border fence winds through Smuggler’s Gulch between Tijuana and San Diego. (Hayne Palmour IV/U-T)

SAN DIEGO — Describing San Diego’s border with Mexico as “an area of high illegal entry,” the Trump administration announced this week it is waiving environmental reviews to speed up replacement of 12.4 miles of the secondary border fence.

This project was funded by a 2018 bill that allocated $251 million for border construction in San Diego. It is not part of the $5.7 billion that President Donald Trump has demanded for border wall construction in the latest budget.

The fence project extends from the eastern end of Border Field State Park, east along the Tijuana River. There will also be about 1 1/2 miles of new secondary wall, a Border Patrol spokesperson said, to “fill gaps in area where the existing secondary fence does not completely mirror the primary barrier.”

The new secondary barrier will be made of 30-foot-tall steel bollards, similar to the 14 miles of primary fencing that is now being built along the same stretch of land to replace older fencing.

This is the sixth waiver the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued since Trump’s election in 2016. Several federal laws have been interpreted to allow Washington to waive legally required environmental reviews.

In issuing the order Thursday, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen argued that conditions on the border made the secondary fence necessary.

“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States in the project area,” Nielsen’s public notice said.

In the past fiscal year, the notice said, the U.S. Border Patrol made more than 38,000 arrests and seized 8,700 pounds of marijuana and 1,800 pounds of cocaine in the San Diego sector.

A border wall was a major campaign issue since Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015. In San Diego, however, much of the U.S.-Mexico border has been marked by tall fences for years.

Construction of the primary fence, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Otay Mountain, began in 1989. Made of 10-foot-tall Vietnam-era helicopter mats, the fence was regarded as welcome yet ineffective. In 1994, Operation Gatekeeper brought more Border Patrol agents and new tactics to the border’s westernmost 5 miles.

In 1996, the secondary fence of steel mesh was installed.

Apprehensions in the area steeply declined as crossing routes moved farther east.

In recent years, the barrier has been repeatedly breached, often by battery-powered saws that can rapidly create holes large enough for people. The Border Patrol has covered some areas of the mesh with rolls of concertina wire to further deter breaches.

SLSCO Ltd., a Texas company, has a $101 million government contract to replace that meshed fence with 30-foot-tall steel bollards. With to the waiver, construction could begin this month.

Environmental groups criticized the decision. The existing 600-plus miles of border barriers already harms more than a dozen rare species, they said.

“It comes as no surprise that the Trump administration continues to bypass laws established to keep our communities and wildlife safe to further their dangerous border security agenda,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.

In 2018, after similar waivers were issued to speed the construction of the replacement primary fencing in San Diego and 60 miles of fencing in Texas, the Trump administration was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The nonprofits argued that the waiver was unconstitutional, allowing Homeland Security to violate the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. Building barriers on the border, they maintained, could damage habitats, rare plants and threatened animals.

Last February, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel in San Diego dismissed the case. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Lawsuits are still pending on waivers that DHS issued to hasten the construction of border barriers in New Mexico and another portion of the Texas-Mexico boundary.

“This is the sixth time the Trump administration has issued these waivers and we are fundamentally opposed to all of them,” said Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We think there is no justification for ignoring environmental, safety and health concerns to rush through this unnecessary wall.”

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