Canyon supporters joining forces to stop fill-in work
Union Tribune (2008-05-16) Leslie Berestein
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More Info: Border Security
Backup border fence would be built on dirt
By Leslie Berestein
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
May 16, 2008
Environmentalists hoping to stop the filling of a steep canyon that would allow a secondary border fence to be built have been joined by several other local organizations, including human-rights and religious groups.
Yesterday morning, representatives from groups such as the San Diego Audubon Society, Save Our Heritage Organisation and Friends of the U.S.-Mexico Border Environment were joined by supporters from the American Friends Service Committee, Border Angels, the Interfaith Shelter Network and others at a news conference next to a dusty staging area for construction.
Some said the goal was to pressure local, state and federal politicians to discuss other construction methods that would not require such a massive earthmoving operation, which critics fear will damage the Tijuana River estuary.
“Our call is for elected officials to engage with DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) in exploring alternatives,” said John Fanestil, executive director of the Foundation for Change, a grant-making organization that funds grass-roots social-justice groups in the San Diego-Tijuana area.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the project calls for building an earthen berm across a canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch, west of the San Ysidro port of entry. It would require filling the canyon with more than 2 million cubic yards of dirt to support a 15-foot-tall secondary fence and all-weather roads for patrol vehicles.
A $48.6 million contract for the project was awarded earlier this year to the Kiewit Corp., a construction and mining company based in Omaha, Neb. Construction is set to start next month, with soil surveys already under way.
The project has been on the drawing board for years. In February 2004, environmental groups that included the Sierra Club and the San Diego Audubon Society filed suit in federal court opposing it; the same month, the California Coastal Commission ruled that the operation would cause environmental damage and blocked construction.
It was given the green light, however, in September 2005, when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff set a precedent by waiving all laws and litigation impeding construction. The waiver authority was granted to the department by the federal Real ID Act of 2005.
Later that year, a federal judge in San Diego threw out the local lawsuit and ruled that the waiver authority was constitutional.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, a longtime proponent of the Smuggler's Gulch fence, said in a recent interview that “the waiver has proven to be not only useful, but necessary.”
However, as the federal government scrambles to have 670 miles of border fencing in place by the end of the year, litigation elsewhere – and the resulting sweeping set of waivers – have resulted in new constitutional challenges.
In March, the national environmental group Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, involved in litigation stemming from fence construction in Arizona, filed a brief to the Supreme Court in hopes that the high court will weigh in on the constitutionality of the federal waiver authority.