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Arizona rancher sues feds over damage from border wall construction
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Arizona rancher sues feds over damage from border wall construction

Border Wall, Arizona-Mexico border

In Arizona, Southwest Valley Constructors is building 88 miles of border wall at a cost of nearly $2.2 billion. The work involves the use of explosives to blast through rock.

The owners of a ranch in Cochise County have sued the federal government over damages to their property they say were caused by nearby construction of the 30-foot-tall border wall.

The Diamond A Ranch and the Guadalupe Ranch Corp. claim the company working under contract with the federal government “trespassed onto and destroyed private property belonging to the ranch without notice, authorization, or process,” according to a lawsuit filed Nov. 30 in federal court in Washington, D.C.

The wall project near the ranch began in July. It involves building a 30-foot-tall steel wall through a roughly 5-mile stretch of remote wilderness in the southeastern corner of Cochise County. The construction is located on a 60-foot-wide strip of federal land that runs between the international border and the ranch.

The ranch owners claim “car-sized boulders” and other debris fell on their property when the contractor used explosives to blast through rock in the construction site. They also claim workers and officials entered their property without authorization, according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by the Washington Post.

The terrain where the wall is being built through Guadalupe Canyon is “so steep that the land was accessible only by foot and mule. Even now, after rough construction, or pioneering, has begun, it can be traveled only with tracked vehicles,” according to the lawsuit.

To level the terrain so the wall can be built, “they first plant tons of explosives and blast large portions of hillsides into the valleys below,” according to the lawsuit. As a result, “clouds of demolition dust, shrapnel, and car-sized boulders have come tumbling down” onto the ranch.

Part of the wall project runs across Guadalupe Creek and is “almost certain to lead to flooding,” the ranch owners claim in the lawsuit. They said there is a “grave risk” that debris carried by water will “jam and block” the creek. If that occurs, flood waters could “wash away the road and cut the Ranch off from the outside world,” according to the lawsuit.

The ranch owners claim they tried to “engage in good faith negotiations” with federal officials, but were met with “empty promises” and “bad-faith dealings.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees wall contracts, has “stonewalled” the ranch owners’ request for basic documents, including a copy of the wall contract, under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The ranch owners said the ranch is “not a political organization, and it has not filed this lawsuit out of opposition to (Custom and Border Protection’s) mission. The ranch has been adversely affected in the past by illegal border crossings and has supported efforts to improve border security and deter illegal crossings.”

The contractor building the wall near the ranch, at a cost of roughly $41 million per mile, is Southwest Valley Constructors, a New Mexico-based affiliate of construction giant Kiewit.

In Arizona, Southwest Valley Constructors is building 88 miles of border wall at a cost of nearly $2.2 billion, according to information provided by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The ranch owners are asking a judge to order officials to stop wall construction near the ranch until the ranch owners are given notice of any “further incursions on Ranch land” and plans to prevent those incursions.

The ranch owners want to see any hydrologic studies and other engineering designs. They also want a “meaningful hearing” with federal officials that will result in a plan to protect the ranch and “remediate past damage.”

In response to the request to halt construction, federal officials said in court documents that the blasting near the ranch was completed on Nov. 19 and work on a culvert across Guadalupe Creek will not begin until mid-January.

Officials with the Corps said they constructed berms and other measures to prevent rocks from falling on the ranch. The ranch owners said it was unclear whether the berms “cover a meaningful fraction” of the ranch property or whether they have been effective in protecting the ranch, according to court records.

One of the business managers of the ranch, Sage Goodwin, said in a court declaration that the ranch is a “national model of conservation ranching that balances commercial operations, the preservation of traditional ranch life and customs, scientific research, healthy, resilient wildlife habitat, and a commitment to preserving open space.”

Ranch workers frequently cooperated with the Border Patrol,reporting suspicious activity, providing information on employees, and allowing agents to patrol on the ranch, Goodwin wrote.

But the relationship with the Border Patrol “began to deteriorate” in February when surveyors for the border wall entered the property without permission, Goodwin wrote.

In March, Customs and Border Protection officials announced new wall projects, including one along the ranch’s southern boundary, and asked the public for comment. Normally, the public would have weeks or months to provide comments on a project. But within a week, the Corps awarded the wall contract that included the project near the ranch.

Goodwin emailed a CBP official the next day to express his concerns. He and his family submitted a comment letter in May saying the construction footprint of the project could extend well beyond the strip of federal land along the border. They also said they were worried about flooding.

By summer, “a small army of construction vehicles, including heavy tracked equipment, assembled on federal land to the west of Guadalupe Canyon,” Goodwin wrote. “Massive explosions and percussions of enormous jack hammers came closer and closer to the ranch.”

A hearing is scheduled for Monday in federal court in Washington, D.C.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar


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