‘We’re building a wall’: Environmentalists dismayed as construction continues on South Texas border levees

The Border Wall

MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Construction crews and heavy machinery tilled at the dry dirt as crews made way for new border infrastructure through a federal wildlife refuge Tuesday morning on the border with Mexico south of Mission, Texas.

A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Report told Border Report via email that “the activity is previously approved levee remediation work.”

LEFT: Construction crews from SLSCO, hired by the federal government, work on “levee remediation” south of Mission, Texas, on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. RIGHT: The new construction is hooking into previous border wall built during the Trump administration that was halted by the Biden administration. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

But an employee for SLSCO, a Galveston, Texas-based contractor hired by the federal government, told Border Report: “We’re building a wall.”

The employee did not give his name or allow Border Report to photograph him. And shortly thereafter, SLSCO employees told Border Report and an accompanying environmentalist to leave the area because it is “federal construction property.”

Luciano Guerra is outreach coordinator for the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Luciano Guerra, outreach coordinator for the National Butterfly Center, walked the half-mile from the National Butterfly Center to the adjacent property on Tuesday morning to view the construction activities. After he was kicked out, he was not allowed to return to his place of business via the levee. He said the public needs to know that construction is continuing despite the Biden administration’s promise to stop all border wall construction.

“I’m not surprised. They don’t want the public to know what they’re doing. They’re trying to keep it hidden as much as possible. They don’t want anyone there to document and to let the public know exactly what’s going on,” Guerra said as he trotted back with his zoom lens camera equipment.

They don’t want the public to know what they’re doing. They’re trying to keep it hidden as much as possible.”

Luciano Guerra, National Butterfly Center outreach coordinator

A wide swath of trees and brush has been cleared south of the construction, closer to the Rio Grande, as part of the 150-foot enforcement zone that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers incorporate into all border barrier infrastructure designs.

The barren area most likely will be used for an all-weather road, floodlights and cameras once fully developed.

LEFT: The dense brush of El Morillo, part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Corridor. RIGHT: A swath of 150-foot-wide segment of brush has been cleared for border levee construction, as seen on Jan. 11, 2022. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

Guerra said the area is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Corridor and is critical habitat for species trying to get to and from the Rio Grande, which cuts through the wildlife refuge.

This area is called the El Morillo tract and it is part of the corridor that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists on its website as “one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America.”

It provides “nesting sites and habitat for all kinds of wildlife,” Guerra said.

The National Butterfly Center on Friday sent its drone above its property, which is adjacent to the construction, and photographed as crews were clearing the land and began to connect new infrastructure to the previously built border wall.

Drone footage taken from the National Butterfly Center on Jan. 7, 2022, shows new construction on the border levee south of Mission, Texas. (Photo by the National Butterfly Center)

The existing border barrier is over 18-feet tall and is part of the Trump administration’s border security plan. But President Joe Biden halted construction when he took office. However, sections of the earthen levee were damaged during border wall construction and late last year the Biden administration announced it would repair the levees after Hidalgo County officials threatened to do it themselves, fearing flooding during hurricane season due to the exposed sections.

The new barrier section being built is shorter — about 6-feet tall — but uses the same metal bollards, just cut down.

This drone photo taken Jan. 7, 2022, shows a large swath of the federal wildlife refuge sheared to make room for construction crews that are building east toward the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. (Photo by National Butterfly Center)

National Butterfly Center Executive Director Marianna Treviño-Wright told Border Report she doesn’t see much of a difference between the new barrier and the old one.

“This is not levee repair. They’re actually destroying the levee to build border wall. They’re continuing this border wall,” she said Tuesday.

Treviño-Wright said the National Guard told her and another environmentalist on Friday to get back on Butterfly Center land and they tried to forbid them entry into the federal wildlife refuge.

National Guard are positioned on Jan. 11, 2022, to stop passersby from entering a construction area where border levees are “being repaired,” according to CBP. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

On Tuesday, construction crews had dumped massive loads of rocks on a road bordering the center property, and Guerra feared that they would be using the narrow road for access of 18-wheeler trucks and heavy equipment. But construction crews ended up moving the rocks to another access road closer to the construction site.

Scott Nicol, an environmentalist who accompanied Treviño-Wright on Friday, Tweeted a photo of the site on Tuesday and wrote: “YOUR GOVERNMENT THINKS YOU ARE STUPID. Border wall construction is ongoing.”

LEFT: Pedestrians and motorists are forbidden from the earthen levees in Hidalgo County, Texas, where border infrastructure is built. RIGHT: A giant construction crane peaks through the treeline in Mission, Texas, where border infrastructure was being built on Jan. 11, 2022. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

Nicol told Border Report: “Contractors are using false claims of levee repair to continue to build Trump’s border walls. Levees that were untouched before Biden took office are being torn open, and this new border wall is going up in a National Wildlife Refuge.”

Border barrier construction is happening on property next to the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Nicol said this area in Mission at El Morillo had no previous infrastructure and he said the levee had been intact and not damaged and, in his opinion, is in no need of what CBP officials have been calling a “guard rail.”

“President Biden said that ‘not another foot’ of wall would be built, but SLSCO has erected more than a kilometer of new border wall in places that never had walls and where the levees were previously untouched,” Nicol said.

A month ago, Nicol took Border Report to a remote tract of border farmland in Cameron County for which the Biden administration is suing in federal court to condemn in order to build border barrier infrastructure projects. The Border Infrastructure Project would go straight through the La Gloria wildlife refuge tract, which also is part of the Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

The Center for Biological Diversity last month announced it was suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for levee repairs and construction, accusing them of failing to protect ocelots, or other wildlife, and violating the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

“Biden needs to live up to his ‘not another foot’ promise, and Congress needs to rescind the funds that are paying for border wall construction,” Nicol said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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