Seth Hettena, AP, Newsday.com, Feb. 19
SAN DIEGO — California regulators denied a Department of Homeland Security request to fortify the westernmost stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, setting the stage for a possible legal battle between the state and the Bush administration.
The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday found that the harm the project would cause to sensitive habitats outweighed security benefits provided by filling in canyons and erecting additional fences along the final 3 1/2 miles of the border before it meets the ocean.
“The operation might succeed, but the patient might die,” Commissioner John S. Woolley said.
The U.S. Border Patrol insisted the fortifications were needed to deter illegal border crossers and protect its agents. They said they planned to challenge the commission’s ruling.
The ruling could delay plans to start construction next year on the final phase of the $58 million fencing project. Nine miles have already been fenced.
If the two sides can’t reach a compromise, the issue is likely to land in federal court, officials said. The U.S. government, however, holds a trump card: Under federal law governing coastal management, the president has the power to override an unfavorable court ruling.
Much of the environmental concern stems from the Border Patrol’s plans to fill a deep, half-mile long canyon known as “Smuggler’s Gulch,” with 2.1 million cubic yards of dirt, enough to fill 300,000 dump trucks.
The Coastal Commission said filling the canyon would erode soil near a federally protected estuary that is a refuge for threatened and endangered birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also opposed filling in Smuggler’s Gulch.
The agency’s apprehensions fell to 16,000 last year, a decline of 88 percent since the federal government launched a crackdown in 1994, erecting fences, adding patrols and installing lights and motion sensors. Steep, unimproved roads were responsible for the death of three San Diego-based Border Patrol agents over the past two years.
Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press
Divided On Barrier
State report says U.S. border project should be reworked
By Terry Rodgers, SignOnSanDiego, Feb. 16
America’s border with Mexico just south of San Diego is a reptilian landscape, an undulating series of mesas and steep arroyos covered by parched and prickly vegetation.
Known as the Border Highlands, this no man’s land strewn with garbage and scarred by a labyrinth of dirt roads seems an unlikely battleground between environmentalists and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But there’s more here to protect than the untrained eye can see, including some of the state’s rarest plants and the 2,500-acre Tijuana River estuary, Southern California’s largest and most ecologically diverse wetland.
At issue is the federal government’s plan to complete a 14-mile-long triple-fencing project intended to deter illegal border crossings.
The final 31/2 miles of a 5-mile segment of the project is within the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission, which, under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, can temporarily delay the project by withholding its consent.
The commission will meet Wednesday at the Lodge at Torrey Pines to hold a public hearing and decide whether to allow the triple-fencing project to be built as designed by the U.S. Border Patrol and Army Corps of Engineers.
A report by the coastal agency’s Mark Delaplaine recommends denial of the project because, in his opinion, it would be more destructive to the land than necessary and could increase erosion.
“We’re not looking to stop the project,” Delaplaine said. “But there are ways to do this that are less harmful to the environment.”
The project would add a 14-foot-tall steel fence about 130 feet north of the existing barrier made of military surplus sheet metal. The new Scandia fencing is made of compressed galvanized metal and would be mounted on concrete footings buried four feet.
Patrol roads would be paved on either side of the new fence, which tilts at the top to deter climbers. An 8-foot-tall chain-link fence would be erected north of the taller fence to define the border enforcement zone and keep the public out. Stadium lights, remote-controlled cameras and other sensing devices also would be installed.
“We want something that will send a message that you can’t cross here and, if you try, you will be apprehended,” said Michael D. Hance, a supervising Border Patrol agent involved in the design.
The project would denude a swath of vegetation about the width of a six-lane freeway. It would cut across a habitat preserve included in the Multiple Species Conservation Program, a system of interconnected open-space areas established by the federal and state governments.
To offset the project’s damage to the habitat preserve, the Border Patrol has offered to restore plants to 85 miles of dirt roads — or 145 acres — that will no longer be necessary to patrol the border.
National Guard and other military construction units have already installed nearly nine miles of secondary fencing and patrol roads. The fencing begins at the Otay Mesa border crossing and extends to East Spooner’s Mesa near the city of San Diego’s sewage treatment plant.
The Coastal Commission report is especially critical of the Border Patrol’s plan to build a 165-foot-tall, half-mile-long earthen bridge across Smuggler’s Gulch by cutting 1.85 million cubic yards from the existing terrain.
“Environmentally less damaging alternatives are available, feasible and practicable,” the report states.
The Border Patrol insists that the massive earthen bridge is the only alternative that will achieve its objective: a barrier so intimidating that would-be border crossers won’t even try.
Border Patrol agents have been killed from falls and other accidents at Smuggler’s Gulch, an aptly named 400-foot-deep canyon where everything from arms to liquor to immigrants have been sneaked across both sides for generations.
The Border Patrol argues that the proposed earthen bridge would be a stair-step design that would increase existing erosion by less than 1 percent. A culvert at the base of the berm would allow water through while providing an effective barrier against debris and illegal border crossers.
While Delaplaine has suggested the installation of a sediment basin to prevent silt from washing into the Tijuana River estuary, the Border Patrol has agreed only to monitor erosion for five years and then propose a fix if there’s a problem.
“I’d say we’re pretty far apart,” Delaplaine said. “They are pretty wedded to their design. I think they’re done tweaking.”
The state currently is building an $8.5 million sediment basin at the mouth of Goat Canyon, west of Smuggler’s Gulch, to protect the estuary from being filled with silt.
There has been a significant investment of public funds to preserve the estuary and adjacent habitat.
“The Tijuana River valley is a wedge of open space between two intensely urban metropolitan areas,” said Mike Wells, who oversees the estuary for the state parks department. “It has tremendous value both ecologically and recreationally.”
State and federal agencies have spent an estimated $200 million to preserve the western end of the Border Highlands and build treatment plants to clean up Mexican sewage that used to flow freely to the shore at Imperial Beach.
The triple border fence has been championed by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, who argues that it is more necessary than ever because of the threat of terrorists who could target San Diego’s military installations.
“National security should be our No. 1 priority,” Hunter said.
In areas where double fencing has been installed, violent crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration have been dramatically reduced, he said.
The Border Patrol said apprehensions of illegal crossers in the western sector covered by agents from its Imperial Beach headquarters dropped to 11,000 in the fiscal year 2003 ending Sept. 30 from 250,000 a decade ago.
Alberto Lozano, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate, said he doesn’t believe the triple-fencing project will stem the tide of immigrants.
“A fence won’t be a solution,” he said. “We need a holistic immigration agreement.”
The final five miles of the project could cost an estimated $25 million, including $11 million to offset the loss of rare wildlife habitat.
If the Coastal Commission denies the project, the government could proceed anyway, forcing the state to uphold its decision in federal court. Even if the court rules in the commission’s favor, the president could override the court’s decision on national security grounds.
The project was mandated by the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which allows the U.S. attorney general to exempt the project from the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. That has not been done.
Said the Border Patrol’s Hance: “I don’t think (the Coastal Commission) is in a strong position to say no. I’m comfortable we have a good legal position.”