McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Environmentalists are praising the Biden administration’s announcement that it is rescinding some environmental waivers that had been issued during the Trump administration to quick-start border wall construction.
On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security announced in the Federal Register that back in effect are 27 federal environmental regulatory laws that had been lifted during the Trump administration to build border barriers in the Texas counties of Webb and Zapata.
If the current or future administrations plan border barrier for these counties, they would have to follow environmental regulations and assessments for air, water and land, prior to construction, which could take about two years.
“This is a huge victory for us and for the border. The most egregious part of the whole issue involving border wall construction is those waivers of law,” said Tricia Cortez, executive director of the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center, which studies the international river between Texas and Mexico. “This is significant because we’re the only community on the entire U.S.-Mexico border that has been able to achieve this.”
Cortez is part of the No Border Wall Laredo Coalition, which has successfully fought federal border wall construction since 2019. This past year, the group has been fighting the state over its plans to build border walls.
So far, there have not been any border barriers built in Webb and Zapata counties, despite contracts that had been issued to build 71 miles of border wall.
“These sort of waivers of federal laws: Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; Safe Drinking Water Act; Endangered Species, etc. They don’t do that anywhere else in the United States, except here on the border,” Cortez told Border Report on Friday.
The total environmental waivers that have been rescinded include:
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Federal Water Pollution Control Act
- National Historic Preservation Act
- Migratory Bird Treaty Act
- Migratory Bird Conservation Act
- Clean Air Act
- Archeological Resources Protection Act
- Archeological Resources Protection Act
- Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Noise Control Act
- Solid Waste Disposal Act
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
- Antiquities Act
- Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act
- Farmland Protection Policy Act
- National Fish and Wildlife Act
- Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act
- National Trails System Act
- Administrative Procedure Act
- Rivers and Harbors Act
- Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
- Eagle Protection Act
- Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
- American Indian Religious Freedom Act
“This is a historic win for people and wildlife in these South Texas counties,” said Laiken Jordahl, a Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “People have been forced to live as second-class citizens without the protection of our nation’s most important environmental and public health laws. It’s wonderful that the Biden administration is using its power to right the wrongs of these disastrous border wall waivers. Now it should rescind dozens of waivers and get to work repairing the damage border walls have inflicted on wildlife, communities and Tribal nations across the borderlands.”
Laredo City Councilwoman Melissa Cigarroa was a plaintiff in a lawsuit that fought the border wall from being built on her border ranchlands in rural Zapata County.
“The whole fight was so that we would not be treated as second-class citizens. And that is exactly what those waivers did. We do not stop being Americans because we live on the border. And to be used as pawns in this political game of trying to have an excuse for security, to rise up to this level of political rhetoric. It was unacceptable,” she told Border Report.
The lawsuit, which challenged the use of eminent domain and issuance of environmental waivers, led to Friday’s announcement.
It was filed in 2020 in federal district court with another private landowner and Zapata County, which did not want a border wall going through its scenic birding sanctuary in San Ygnacio, Texas.
In March, a federal judge ruled that at the time the waivers were issued for Webb and Zapata counties, then-Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf had not been properly appointed to head the agency.
“Our country’s federal system of divided powers can only function when the rights of the local government are respected,” Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell said in a statement.
“We hope our fight inspires others to challenge the loss of protection of our resources, and that this puts pressure on the government to rescind the waivers all along the U.S.-Mexico border,” Christopher Rincon, the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement.
Rincon said he also hopes it will eventually lead to the elimination of the clause in the 2005 Real ID Act that allows for waivers of environmental regulatory laws.
“Border security should not give permission for the infringement of human rights,” he said.
“The fact that we are finally being recognized as citizens — our rights are being restored — is everything,” Cigarroa said. “It shouldn’t have taken so long.”
Abbott, who showed off the first state-built segment of border wall in December of 2021 in Starr County, said it was an “unprecedented action taken by the state of Texas” necessary “to secure our state” from human traffickers and drug smugglers crossing the Rio Grande.