In the recently released Rio Grande Valley Tactical Infrastructure Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the Department of Homeland Security attempts to brush aside issues of environmental justice in its plans to build border walls in south Texas. Although the Rio Grande Valley’s population is over 85% minority, and its border communities are some of the poorest in the nation, the EIS states that the impacts of the proposed border wall “would not fall disproportionately on minority or low-income populations.”
The Environmental Impact Statement is not only of interest to environmentalists. By law, environmental impact statements are required to cover issues of the human environment as well. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande Valley Border Fence EIS (copy available at http://www.borderfencenepa.com/rio-grande-valley-sector-eis/) does not adequately address these issues, and the most vulnerable residents of the Rio Grande Valley are being left unprotected from the damage a border wall is certain to cause.
The Border Wall in Southern California - courtesy J.J. Castro
Environmental justice is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency to mean that “no group of people, including racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal environmental programs and policies” (EPA Fact Sheet). This sentiment was codified by President Clinton in executive order 12898 (Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice [EJ] in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations), which provides that “each Federal agency must identify and address, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the U.S.”
In 2004, the Operation Rio Grande Environmental Impact Statement found that environmental justice was indeed an issue for projects in the Rio Grande Valley:
"Approximately 85% of the population in the area can be classified as minority (well above the state average of 39.4%). The median annual household incomes for the counties in the project area (Starr, $10,182; Hidalgo, $16,703; and Cameron, $17,336) are well below the state average of $27,016 and, in the case of Starr County, below the $15,000 established by the EPA for defining the economic status risk group. Therefore, many of the households in the project area doubtless have a high potential EJ index." (Operation Rio Grande EIS, Section 3.12.6)
However, in the 2007 Draft Rio Grande Valley Border Fence EIS, it is claimed that the protections of environmental justice do not apply. This questionable judgment is achieved by sleight of hand and is revealed in the following quote:
"Of the 21 fence sections, 11 are within census bureau tracts in which a portion of the tracts have a higher proportion of minority or low-income residents. Of the proposed 70 miles of tactical infrastructure, substantially less than half is within census bureau tracts that have a higher proportion of minority or low-income residents—therefore the overall impacts of the proposed tactical infrastructure would not fall disproportionately on minority or low-income populations." (Section 5. 5.11)
Rather than stating that the majority of people who will be negatively impacted by the border wall are poor and/or minorities, which is what environmental justice is all about, the EIS counts miles. Miles that fall within US Fish and Wildlife refuge tracts, where no people live, are counted along with the miles that pass through poor communities, allowing them to dilute, at least on paper, the wall’s impact on minority and low-income populations. Mileage is irrelevant to the question of environmental justice. The question is whether a disproportionately high number of the people who will be negatively affected are members of minority and/or low income populations.
The EIS does mention in passing that people will lose their homes, stating that, “Construction of the project would require some acquisition of private property, including the potential dislocation of some property owners and tenants.” “Dislocation” is of course a euphemism for eviction. In communities like Granjeno, where families have passed property down through the generations since the Spanish land grants of the 1760’s, up to a third of the homes will be impacted.
Residents evicted to build the Berlin Wall
Hard-working people who may not have the money to hire lawyers are going to have their homes bulldozed or family farms sliced in two for a wall that won’t stop anyone. DHS is prepared to perpetrate a terrible injustice against the very U.S. citizens that they are supposed to protect.
The grassroots coalition No Border Wall is concerned that the Department of Homeland Security is papering over the real human hardships that a border wall tearing through Rio Grande Valley communities will cause and that minorities and the poor will bear the brunt of the damage of a misguided and politically-motivated project.