DONNA, Texas (Border Report) — Heavy cranes, dirt movers and plenty of rebar could be seen as construction workers on Wednesday began building the first new border wall in South Texas just south of the town of Donna.
Border Report was able to shoot some video of the construction site before being asked to leave the area, which workers said was “an active construction zone” and not open to the public. Also, the border levee where we were standing is owned by the International Boundary and Water Commission, and its representative said we could not stand there.
But these first shots show that the wall is being built on the south side of the levee, as expected, and indicate how it will connect to an existing border wall that was built in 2008 under the 2006 Secure Fence Act.
On Sept. 29, CBP in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a contract to Gibraltar-Caddell Joint Venture for up to $296 million to build 22 miles of noncontiguous border wall starting east of Santa Ana. The 18-30 foot tall steel bollards are to fill in the gaps of the existing wall.
Jim Chapman, vice president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit support group for Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, saw the construction on Wednesday and said he is still worried about how and exactly where the border wall will be built near Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles to the east in Alamo, Texas.
Congress appropriated $1.375 billion for a wall on the Southwest border in fiscal 2019, but lawmakers exempted Santa Ana and a few other historical sites in South Texas, from having a border wall cut through it. Others include historic La Lomita Chapel, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, within or east of the Vista del Mar Ranch tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, or the National Butterfly Center.
Border Report recently toured the 2,000-acre wildlife refuge with Chapman, who showed where a tract of land — roughly one-third of a mile long that the refuge bought from a nearby farmer in 1978 — is particularly vulnerable to border wall construction. That is because the land underneath that section of the levee is not owned by the refuge and would be prone to construction.
“Still, that’s the big question is whether they will build there,” Chapman said Wednesday. “It’s still a mystery how close they will go to Santa Ana.”
When asked whether this tract of Santa Ana land will be affected by border wall construction or the 150-foot border enforcement zone surrounding the wall, U.S. Customs and Border Protection referred Border Report to a Sept. 30 news release that states the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a waiver to expedite construction of new border wall gates in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, where Donna is located. “The gate construction project includes the installation of automated border wall gates, associated equipment, and site improvements at current openings in the existing barrier in the U.S. Border Patrol’s (USBP) Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Sector.”
It is unclear whether this tract of land will be the site of a border wall gate, or not. But the news release states: “The gates will be located on the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission levee at existing levee ramps. Once installed, the gates will serve as a persistent impediment to smuggling organizations while still allowing river access for property owners, USBP, other local/state/federal officials, and local emergency responders.”
There is a levee ramp in the one-third-mile land tract of Santa Ana.
The news release adds: “While the waiver eliminates DHS’ obligation to comply with various environmental laws with respect to the areas covered in the waiver, DHS remains committed to the protection of the nation’s important natural and cultural resources. DHS has been, and will continue coordinating and consulting with other federal, state, and local resource agencies and other interested stakeholders to ensure that potential impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic resources are analyzed and minimized, to the greatest extent possible.”
It also is unclear whether a historical cemetery dating to the 1700s that is located in the vicinity will be spared from construction.
But Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign, told Border Report on Wednesday that this new construction “is nothing but a photo op, a way for CBP to toss Trump a bone. Building this short bit of levee wall, then demobilizing the construction crews for months or years while they condemn the rest of the land, will drive up the cost to taxpayers dramatically.”
This first border wall going up near Donna is located on private land, but many other landowners in the region have so far refused CBP access to survey their lands, and have not sold their properties for wall construction.
Added Nicol: “The border wall is a wildly destructive farce whose sole purpose is to give Trump something to tweet about.”
Last month, President Donald Trump tweeted “GREAT progress on the Border Wall!” and issued the following video:
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.
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