AP NEWS

New Mexico land boss concerned about border wall work

May 9, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The head of one of New Mexico’s most powerful statewide offices is raising concerns about the lack of an environmental review as the U.S. government prepares to replace fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border in two counties.

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard delivered her comments to U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday as Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation pushed for a public comment period on the plan to be extended.

Erecting taller barriers along the border is one of the hot-button issues fueling the contentious debate over how the United States should boost border security and overhaul its troubled immigration system.

Congress for years has struggled to pass any comprehensive reform.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in April issued waivers to environmental laws to clear the way for border wall work in New Mexico and Arizona.

The state of California and environmental groups tried to block similar work near San Diego and Calexico but a federal appeals court ruled in February that the Trump administration did not exceed its powers by waiving the environmental rules to speed construction.

As part of President Donald Trump’s plan, the government is preparing to replace existing waist-high vehicle barriers with metal bollards along 31 miles (50 kilometers) of the border in Luna County. Another 15 miles (24 kilometers) of taller fencing is planned in Dona Ana County.

Garcia Richard, a Democrat, said her agency hasn’t received any inquiries from federal officials regarding rights of way permits or easements that would be required for accessing state trust lands adjacent to proposed construction areas.

Saying the Trump administration is obsessed with the idea of a border wall, Garcia Richard suggested that gathering public comment was only symbolic and that little information has been released on how the construction will proceed.

“We cannot know the exact impact that this proposal would have on state trust land,” she wrote. “This border project does not come close to meeting even the lowest bar for sustainable land management.”

The State Land Office said some of the areas where the work is planned are about 60 feet from state trust land, and extensive digging, trenching and truck traffic is likely. Officials are concerned about air quality as well as damage to surrounding soil and vegetation.

The agency also contends that while Customs and Border Protection has agreed to be responsible for environmental planning around the project, there’s no publicly available documentation that federal officials have engaged in environmental planning.