Chertoff Brings the Fence Back

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has allowed border fence building to return to Arizona, despite environmental concerns.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last week used his Congressionally granted waiver power to overturn the suspension of construction on seven miles of fence along the American-Mexican border in Arizona. Work on the fence, which represents a small part of the 700 or so miles of barriers called for by President Bush last year, had been suspended since October 10, when a federal district judge ordered work halted until an assessment of the environmental impact of the project could be carried out.

Congress gave Chertoff the power to waive environmental and other laws to build border barriers when it passed the REAL ID Act in 2005. Chertoff has invoked his waiver power two times previously before doing so again last week.

Chertoff told reporters that he was not invoking the power simply to brush aside environmental laws, but to better protect the nation against illegal immigration and terrorism. "We are trying to respect the substance of the environmental process and we are using the waiver authority where it looks like people are simply trying to stop or slow us down by throwing up procedural obstacles," he added. Environmentalists claim that Chertoff’s decision violates several environmental and conservation laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Antiquities Act. Nonprofits including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife filed suit unsuccessfully to negate Chertoff’s right to waive environmental laws on previous occasions, and may well reinitiate such a suit this time around. "It isn’t too much to ask that DHS and other government agencies comply with our nation’s environmental laws in Arizona, particularly where international treasures like the San Pedro River are at stake," said Robert Dreher of Defenders of Wildlife. "[The] decision by DHS to invoke the REAL ID waiver in this case highlights the need for Congress to step in with legislation that would secure the nation’s border while still being mindful of impacts to the environment and local communities," he added.

Sources: Defenders of Wildlife; Associated Press