Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Blatant Bias in the Border Wall Environmental Impact Statement

The Department of Homeland Security intends to break ground on the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in the spring of 2008. Seventy miles of wall are planned to cut across the Valley from Roma to Brownsville. In preparation for this enormous and expensive project, DHS has prepared a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Unfortunately, the document, prepared by the private contractor e²M, is not an objective study as required by environmental regulations, but an enthusiastic endorsement of the border wall. It erroneously claims that a border wall will stop illegal immigration and keep the United States safe from terrorism. And it downplays the damage a wall will cause to the communities, farms and natural areas of the Rio Grande Valley and to our nation as a whole.

Texas State Rep. Kino Flores at the La Lomita No Border Wall Festival

To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), Environmental Impact Statements must present an objective, unbiased overview of the impacts that a course of action will have on both the human and natural environments. This information is used by decision makers to evaluate whether the costs of an action outweigh its intended benefits. In the regulations that govern Environmental Impact Statements the Council on Environmental Quality clearly states, “Environmental impact statements shall serve as the means of assessing the environmental impact of proposed agency actions, rather than justifying decisions already made.” (Sec. 1502.2)

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Rio Grande Valley border wall ignores this regulation. Rather than objectively evaluating all of the negative impacts that a wall will have in South Texas, it repeatedly presents Department of Homeland Security justifications for the wall as facts without any corroborating evidence. It assumes that the border wall will be a resounding success, and that Texas and the other 49 states will reap the benefits. One passage in particular promotes this idea:

“The cumulative impacts of USBP activities to reduce the flow of illegal drugs, terrorists, and terrorist weapons into the United States and the concomitant effects upon the Nation’s health and economy, drug-related crimes, community cohesion, property values, and traditional family values would be long-term and beneficial, both nationally and locally. Residents of the border towns would benefit from increased security, a reduction in illegal drug-smuggling activities and the number of violent crimes, less damage to and loss of personal property, and less financial burden for entitlement programs. This would be accompanied by the concomitant benefits of reduced enforcement and insurance costs.” (5.11.17)

This reads like a sales pitch, not an unbiased assessment. No evidence is presented to back up any of these claims. But the words used to frame the first sentence, “The cumulative impacts… would be long-term and beneficial” employ precisely the same language that is used elsewhere to evaluate scientifically quantifiable impacts.

In an effective ad campaign it is important to inflate the positive aspects of the product and minimize or ignore the negative. If you go to a used car lot, you know that the sales person is going to tell you that the car has A/C, but probably won’t mention the rust in the wheel wells. The claims made in the Draft EIS should be viewed with the same level of skepticism. A prime example of this is the repeated use of terrorism as a justification for building the wall. Since no terrorists or terrorist weapons have ever entered the United States by crossing the southern border, the border wall cannot possibly “reduce their flow” into the U.S. How can they go below zero?

The United States - Canada border at Beebe Vermont / Quebec

Illegal drugs, on the other hand, do cross the southern border into the United States. However, no data is presented in the Draft EIS to support the assertion that building 70 miles of wall in 21 separate sections along our 1,933 mile long southern border, while ignoring the 3,987 mile long northern border and 12,479 miles of coastline, will in any way impact “drug-related crimes… both nationally and locally.” There have been walls along the southern border near San Diego for over a decade, but according to the Border Patrol nearly 33% of the drugs that they confiscated in 2006 came through the San Diego sector, up from 24% the previous year. The border wall has apparently failed to bring about a “reduction in illegal drug-smuggling activities” in southern California.

The statement that the border wall’s impact upon “community cohesion, property values, and traditional family values would be long-term and beneficial” falls somewhere between George Orwell and Alice in Wonderland. How does one objectively measure “community cohesion” or “traditional family values?” This statement sounds more like a presidential candidate’s stump speech than an unbiased evaluation of the facts, and it is directly contradicted by an earlier passage in the same Draft EIS:

“Minor to moderate adverse indirect impacts would be expected from the imminent dislocation of some families due to property acquisition. Some housing properties would either be removed or visually impaired by the pedestrian fence and adjacent patrol roads. The social aspects of dislocation could be disruptive. Many families in the proposed project corridor have lived there for decades, some even centuries, and have strong emotional ties to the family land and homes.” (4.12.55)

How will the “dislocation of some families” and the removal of houses have a beneficial impact on “community cohesion, property values, and traditional family values?” Wouldn’t bulldozing a house lower the property’s value? Is homelessness now a “traditional family value?” At least there is the tepid admission that evicting families from their homes and lands “could be disruptive”, particularly for families that have occupied plots of land for many generations. In some instances ownership stretches back to the Spanish land grants of the 1760’s. Removing families with such deep roots will destroy “community cohesion”, no matter what definition of the term the writers of the Draft EIS want to use. But even in this statement the negative impacts are downplayed. When a family is evicted from their home and the building is knocked down, the impacts are certainly not “indirect”, and they are by no means “minor to moderate.”

Construction of the Berlin Wall - "community cohesion" in the making

Not only are the claims that those border residents who don’t have their homes bulldozed will see a reduction in violent crime, less damage to private property, and lower entitlement program costs made without any empirical evidence, they run counter to the evidence that does exist. All of the imagined benefits of the border wall flow from the baseless assumption that if sections of border wall are built in the Rio Grande Valley they will stop illegal traffic from coming across. They will not. In its June 5, 2007 report Border Security: Barriers Along the U.S. International Border the Congressional Research Service concluded that the border wall “did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border in San Diego.” The San Diego wall consists of two parallel walls, the first made of steel slabs and the second made of steel mesh, each 16 feet tall. Between them there is a cleared area 100 feet wide with a graded patrol road and light and camera towers. This is much more than is proposed for the Rio Grande Valley by the Draft EIS, yet it is claimed that the Texas border wall will be much more effective than the walls near San Diego.

In searching for justifications for the border wall the private contractor that wrote the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was very selective about what information was included and what was left out. Even the words of their client were excluded when they failed to provide a ringing endorsement of the wall’s effectiveness. Discussing the border wall in July, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said,

“Fencing is not the cure-all for the problem at the border. I think the fence has come to assume a certain kind of symbolic significance which should not obscure the fact that it is a much more complicated problem than putting up a fence which someone can climb over with a ladder or tunnel under with a shovel.”

Coming from the man who recently threatened to condemn people’s homes if they refused access to surveyors, this is a telling comment. The fact that it is not reflected anywhere in the Draft EIS shows just how biased it is.

The Border Wall between San Diego and Tijuana

Border residents and the rest of America deserve more than a sales pitch. There must be a full accounting of the effects of the border wall before construction begins. Rather than issuing a Final Environmental Impact Statement in January, a new Draft EIS that even-handedly evaluates the impacts that the border wall will have should be prepared. Bias and unfounded statements should be replaced with solid facts. Information that was left out of the Draft EIS, such as the exact number of homes that will be bulldozed, what will happen in the event of a hurricane or major flood, and what measures will be taken to ensure that endangered species are not driven to extinction, should be included. Anything less would be a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, and would represent a tremendous disservice to the American people.

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