Environmentalists ‘disappointed’ with ongoing activity at border wall sites in South Texas

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'It’s more than a guardrail and it’s a shorter border wall, that’s all'

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with a quote from CBP officials.]

ALAMO, Texas (Border Report) — The beeping of heavy trucks and construction crews continued Tuesday morning on a section of border barrier in deep South Texas, where environmentalists say the Biden administration is adding to the border wall, while federal officials say they are merely installing a “guardrail” to shore up the levees damaged by the Trump administration’s border wall construction.

“If that’s a guardrail. It’s a mighty beefy guardrail,” McAllen environmentalist Scott Nicol told Border Report on Tuesday.

Fresh dirt mounds sit beneath newly constructed “guardrails,” on Aug. 24, 2021, which are 6-feet of metal bollards atop a concrete base. The new bollards were put in during the Biden administration beside previously existing 18-foot metal bollards built during the Trump era. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

“It’s more than a guardrail. It’s a shorter border wall, that’s all,” Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor said Tuesday as he surveyed construction crews working east of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. “I have a lot of disappointment with the administration for allowing this to happen.”

In July, Nicol captured video of construction crews lowering new bollards onto concrete levee barriers, which federal officials later told Border Report were 6-foot-tall bollard “guardrails” placed for safety.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Officer Thomas Gresback on Wednesday told Border Report: “This remediation work does not involve expanding the border barrier.”

This remediation work does not involve expanding the border barrier.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Officer Thomas Gresback

“Activities shown in the video are of 6-foot guardrail being installed to support levee repairs. The guardrail and associated gates sit atop the reinforced levee system and is part of DHS’ plans announced April 30 to reduce flooding risk to border communities in the Rio Grande Valley near McAllen, Texas,” a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explained in a July 16 email to Border Report.

President Joe Biden halted border wall construction when he took office, and that caused many construction crews to abandon active border wall sites, including those in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. But as the summer hurricane season loomed, local officials worried that breaches made in the earthen levee during construction of the barrier system damaged the levee and put RGV residents at risk for flooding. In April, the Biden administration agreed to fix border wall sections and blamed the necessary repairs on the Trump administration.

“Construction under the prior administration blew large holes into the Rio Grande Valley’s flood barrier system to make way for a border wall,” DHS officials said in an April 30 statement. “These breaches have threatened local communities. DHS will start work to quickly repair the flood barrier system to protect border communities. This work will not involve expanding the border barrier,” the statement said.

But that is where the disagreements begin; Where federal officials say they are merely shoring up the levees to withstand serious weather events, environmentalists say they are actually adding more border wall. And that is equal to building more border wall, in their opinion.

Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, surveys border wall construction on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, near Alamo, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report )

On Tuesday morning, Chapman stood on a farmer’s field on the south side of the border wall near the town of Alamo, Texas, and surveyed what he said is new construction, including a section with 6-foot-tall metal bollards atop a new concrete barrier.

“What’s going on behind is continuing border wall construction and that really runs directly counter to President-elect Biden saying there ‘would not be one more foot of border wall construction,’ and where you see behind me the concrete wall without the steel bollards on top that’s new. What was there a month or so ago was an earthen levee,” said Chapman.

What’s going on behind is continuing border wall construction.”

Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor

The area looks like the jagged tooth outline of a jack-o-lantern with gaping spaces between 18-foot metal bollards, and shorter, 6-foot-tall bollards atop the rising concrete barrier that runs the length of an earthen levee that has been a barrier from flooding along these borderlands for decades.

Wires and cables can be seen in the gaps in between 18-foot-tall metal bollards on Aug. 24, 2021, in Alamo, Texas. This section of border wall was built before President Joe Biden took office but now is being reinforced, DHS officials say. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

But it is uncertain how DHS officials will fill in these “toothy” gaps.

Border Report asked CBP officials if the gaps will be filled, and whether they’ll use 6-foot-tall metal bollards or the 18-foot kind. This story will be updated if that information is received.

Both Nicol and Chapman say they believe none of this work is necessary. And they accuse DHS of actually creating more breaches in the levee in several sections to make the “repairs.”

“We expected what would happen in those areas that didn’t already have border wall with the steel bollards on top is that essentially they would be returned as the earthen levees that they’ve always been, but in fact what’s happening is they’ve opened in some cases the earthen levees for border wall construction,” Chapman said. “And during that process, it’s more vulnerable.”

ABOVE: The border barrier construction site near Alamo, Texas, was busy on Aug. 24, 2021. It is part of RGV02 operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. BOTTOM RIGHT: Metal bollards are stacked in the nearby town of Pharr, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

Nicol also questions how DHS can do levee repairs with federal congressional funding that was earmarked for border wall construction.

“I think somebody is using the levee repair as a loophole,” said Nicol, former chair of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands campaign. “We have new Biden border walls and I don’t know if the administration understands this — if they’re being told by the Army Corps of Engineers that these are levee repairs. And if it’s levee repairs how are they getting the money?”

“If it’s levee repairs how are they getting the money?”

scott nicol

Nicol points out that the Real ID Act only allowed the federal government to waive environmental laws in order to build the border barrier, not for levee repairs. And he says levee repairs should be under the purview of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which oversees the levees on the banks of the Rio Grande.

The White House on Monday announced a new leader to head the U.S. Section of the IBWC. The previous director had been appointed under Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Monday ruled that the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection violated federal law by not studying the potential environmental impacts on border communities from border wall construction along the Southwest, further proof environmentalists say, that the activities that are continuing on the South Texas border should be better scrutinized.

A truck drives through a breach in the border wall barrier and levee in Alamo, Texas, on Aug. 24, 2021, as Jim Chapman surveys the area. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

Monday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Cindy Jorgenson in Washington, D.C., underscores the need for environmental safeguards and precautions for border communities and wildlife impacted by the border wall, environmentalists say.

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity was a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit against DHS and CBP alleging they failed to follow the National Environmental Policy Act in performing an environmental review along the nearly 2,000-mile Southwest border prior to border wall construction.

The Center’s endangered species legal director, Brian Segee, hailed the court’s decision saying it’s “a wind for wildlife and communities along the border, where the government has behaved as if the laws don’t apply.”

“This victory follows years of federal officials neglecting the environment and the health and wellbeing of borderland communities. We’re disappointed the court stopped short of ordering a new environmental impact statement, but we hope the Biden administration takes a long-overdue look at the wanton environmental destruction from border militarization,” Segee said in a statement.

“All that was waived those laws need to come back. They’re here for us,” Chapman said. “Believe it or not we’re actually a part of the United States and so laws that protect us and protect our land should apply as much to us as to the rest of the country.”

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