The Department of Homeland Security laid claim Tuesday to at least 220 of the 350 miles of U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona to build fences, roads and towers without having to comply with environmental regulations.
A congressionally mandated deadline to have 670 miles of fences, barriers, roads and lighting along the U.S.-Mexico border in place by the end of the year drove Secretary Michael Chertoff to invoke the waiver. To date, the agency has completed 309 miles of projects, leaving it with 361 miles to complete in nine months.
What Tuesday's order does, Chertoff said, is ensure that the rest of what is necessary can be built without having to complete full-blown environmental-impact statements — and without fearing that one or more sections will become tied up in court.
The announcement, however, was greeted by disdain from local environmental-protection groups and a pair of Arizona legislators.
"I think every American should be up in arms that the federal government is waiving these laws," said Sean Sullivan, co-chairman of the Sierra Club Rincon Group, which covers Southeastern Arizona. "They are just going to bulldoze ahead in order to get all the projects they had lined up completed."
The waiver encompasses nearly two-thirds of Arizona's international border, including swaths of land from as far west as Yuma to near the Arizona-New Mexico state line. Some of the larger expanses revealed by Homeland Security include:
● More than 60 miles stretching from about seven miles east of Sasabe to south of Fort Huachuca in Cochise County.
● More than 55 miles on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, from just east of the village of Ali Ak Chin to near Sasabe.
● More than 50 miles across the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge west of Lukeville.
● More than 20 miles from east of Douglas to near the Arizona-New Mexico state line.
In total, Homeland Security identified 13 areas in Arizona. The detailed plans — or what's already under construction or has been completed — for each of the areas weren't available Tuesday. None is a new project, said Amy Kudwa, Homeland Security spokeswoman.
"We are simply moving forward with their expeditious construction," Kudwa said.
The projects will fall under the general category of "pedestrian and vehicle fence construction, towers, sensors, cameras, detection equipment and roads in the vicinity of the border," Homeland Security said.
It's the fourth time Chertoff has used the waiver, created in the 2005 Real ID Act to waive compliance with federal regulations for all border projects. He invoked the waiver on the previous three occasions for individual projects: in October 2007 for construction of two miles of fencing in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in Southeastern Arizona; in January 2007 on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range in Southwestern Arizona; and in 2005 in San Diego.
Each use has elicited harsh criticism from environmentalists and critics who say no one person should have such overreaching power.
Chertoff's use of that 2005 waiver authority "has created a lawless border," said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.
The waiver continues a pattern of neglecting important environmental, health and safety laws to build an ineffective and environmentally damaging border wall, Clark said.
"That arbitrary deadline has resulted in lawlessness along the border and a disregard for environmental health and safety laws," he said.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., called the use of the waiver "outrageous," saying neither her office nor local or state elected officials were consulted.
"This is unacceptable," Giffords said. "A federal government construction project of this magnitude will impact significantly on local residents, communities and the environment. Those of us who live on the border and represent border communities deserve a seat at the table."
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., called such a broad and poorly conceived waiver lazy.
"Secretary Chertoff is abusing the authority granted him by the Congress with this ham-handed waiver," Grijalva said in a statement. "With the stroke of his pen, he overturns 36 laws — some of which have been protecting our resources and our health for more than a century — in an area stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean."
In a prepared statement Tuesday, Chertoff said his actions are justified.
"The flow of illegal traffic through the border region imperils our ability to fight terrorism by stopping the illegal entry of terrorists, and exposes our border communities and the rest of the United States to the ill effects of drug smuggling, human smuggling and gang activity," he said. "Illegal border traffic has also caused severe and profound impacts to the environment."
Invoking the waiver will prevent legal wrangling that could delay projects, he said. That's exactly what happened last year when two environmental groups sought to halt construction of fences and vehicle barriers along the southern edge of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Challengers said federal officials did not properly consider ways to minimize the impact of the new construction.
Chertoff eventually invoked the waiver, and construction continued.
Chertoff denied that environmental concerns are being ignored. He said that there is at least a "draft environmental assessment or environmental impact statement" for all of the miles where his agency is erecting new pedestrian fencing. And he said most of the other projects — aside from fences to keep pedestrians out — also will have those kinds of assessments.
Arizona borderlands that are covered:
• More than 60 miles stretching from about seven miles east of Sasabe to south of Fort Huachuca in Cochise County.
• More than 55 miles on the Tohono O'odham Reservation from just east of the village of Ali Ak Chin to about 21/2 miles west of Sasabe.
• More than 50 miles across the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge west of Lukeville.
• More than 20 miles from about seven miles east of Douglas to about 11/2 miles west of the Arizona-New Mexico state line.
• 13.3 miles along the Colorado River near Yuma.
• 61/2 miles south of Sierra Vista near the Coronado National Monument.
• 6.9 miles starting 10 miles west of Naco going east.
• 6.4 miles starting just east of Naco running east.
• 5.3 miles starting from about 31/2 miles west of Lukeville to east of the town.
• 3.8 miles from Yuma County south of Somerton toward San Luis.
• 21/2 miles from a couple of miles west of Sasabe to east of the town.
• 1.6 miles on the western edge of the Tohono O'odham Reservation south of the village of Ali Ak Chin.
• A one-mile section west of Douglas.
Sources: Department of Homeland Security, International Boundary and Water Commission.