Environmentalists seek to block New Mexico border wall work

A coalition of environment groups filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to stop work to replace existing vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border in southern New Mexico.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. claims the U.S. Department of Homeland Security does not have authority to waive environmental laws as a way to speed construction along a 20-mile stretch near the Santa Teresa port of entry.

The $73 million contract for the work was awarded to a Montana company in February, but it's unclear when construction will start.

The move follows a stymied legal effort by environmentalists to halt border wall work in California.

In that case, a federal judge sided with the Trump administration, rejecting arguments that it overreached its authority by waiving laws requiring environmental and other reviews before construction could begin. An appeal is pending.

The lawsuit filed over the New Mexico project contends that converting vehicle barriers into bollard walls along the border will obstruct the migration of wildlife. The region is home to the Aplomado falcon, kit foxes and desert bighorn sheep. It also includes the historic range for jaguar and Mexican gray wolves.

"Our nation's environmental laws protect both people and wildlife from bad decisions," Jason Rylander, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. "Waiving these safeguards to rush construction of President Trump's ill-conceived border wall will no doubt adversely impact the communities and wildlife along the border."

Carlos Diaz, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the federal agencies would not be able to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The administration has issued three waivers since August 2017 — two to build barriers in parts of California and one in part of New Mexico. Work is underway on a 30-foot (9.1-meter) high barrier in Calexico, California.

President George W. Bush's administration issued the previous five waivers, allowing the government to quickly extend barriers to about one-third of the border.

The lawsuit argues the waiver authority is no longer valid since it was initially meant to clear the way for border wall construction under the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

As for the work planned at Santa Teresa near New Mexico's state line with Texas, federal officials have said the area remains an active route for human smuggling and drug trafficking. Officers in the area are responsible for a sprawling desert territory that spans a portion of West Texas and all of New Mexico.

In announcing plans to bolster barriers in the Santa Teresa area, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a Federal Register notice posted in January that the goal was to deter illegal crossings.

A mile-long (1.6 kilometer-long) section of border near Santa Teresa also is the focus of an easement dispute between New Mexico Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn and federal officials.

Dunn contends the federal government never received authorization to access state trust land that borders the international boundary and has not compensated the state for using the property.

The land is held in trust for the benefit of New Mexico, with the proceeds of any easements, development or leases helping to fund public education.

Federal officials have said they are reviewing property records and plan to meet with Dunn next month.