Interior Department Thwarts Construction of Virtual Border Fence over Environmental Issues

August 19, 2008 - 10:43 PM
Virtual Fence Construction in Arizona Put on Hold
Tucson, Ariz. - Construction on "virtual fence" projects scheduled along Arizona's border with Mexico is on hold indefinitely because the Interior Department hasn't signed off on use of its lands, federal officials said Tuesday.

Interior officials have not accepted a proposed finding in an environmental assessment produced for the U.S. Border Patrol that putting towers with radar, cameras and communications equipment on Interior Department lands would have no significant impact, said Mike Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Authority to waive environmental laws for border security projects was granted to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff under a 2005 congressional act, but the law does not extend to virtual fence projects, Friel said.

Boeing Co., the prime contractor on the projects for the Department of Homeland Security, has suspended work, with no resumption date set.

The Interior Department's concerns as well as sharply increased costs for fuel and material in building the physical fences and vehicle barriers on the border have caused Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security to delay all virtual fence construction until January at the earliest, Friel said. Prep work had been expected to begin in July but was delayed because of the dispute with the Interior Department.

The government has completed just more than half of a total of 670 miles of pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers it is committed to build along the Mexican border by the end of the year. Officials are looking at ways to apply money not obligated to go to virtual fence technical development this year to the physical fence-building to help meet the added costs, Friel said.

Virtual fences are part of the department's plan to secure the U.S.-Mexico border by detecting illegal immigrants and drug smugglers entering Arizona. The state has been the focal point for several years for smugglers bringing illegal immigrants across the border.

Boeing completed a pilot project of nine movable towers this year, but shortly after Chertoff formally accepted the completed fence, Customs and Border Protection and Boeing officials said the $20 million system failed to live up to expectations and would be scrapped.

In its place, officials planned 17 new, refined towers, some holding just communications gear, others featuring new cameras or radars. Those new towers are intended to cover about 34 miles, including the area encompassing the pilot project.

Work on those replacement towers was planned to begin this summer, followed by construction work on 11 other surveillance towers in the virtual fence system farther west, in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Still other towers are planned stretching east of those near Sasabe to an area south of Sierra Vista.

The Organ Pipe project also calls for deployment of unattended ground sensors and about 20 miles of new or improved roads, Friel said.

Customs and Border Protection was scheduled to release a draft environmental assessment for the first seven of those towers on July 31. That did not occur.

Instead, the Interior Department's concerns about the towers' impact of the towers on fragile desert lands put the brakes on the draft report. Interior also raised concerns about needed permits that the Border Patrol hadn't secured.

Because the waiver authority granted in the 2005 Real ID Act does not apply to virtual fence construction, DHS must go through environmental assessment requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Calls to the Interior Department by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.