Border wall construction moves ahead

McALLEN — With the wheels already in motion for the construction of a border wall on a local wildlife refuge and in other areas, local environmentalists are positioning themselves for a fierce battle with the federal government.

At the other end of the Rio Grande Valley, environmentalists are also engaged in an effort to prevent the construction of liquefied natural gas facilities along the Port of Brownsville.

In short, local environmentalists are preparing for a two-front war that they view is the protection of a fragile, but threatened ecosystem in a region that is well-known nationally for its environmental diversity.

Scott Nicol, of the Borderlands Coalition and a Sierra Club executive member, said they’re planning, along with several non-governmental organizations, a protest march this weekend to amplify the message about the destruction border walls would have in the area, not only on the wildlife and species, but on other vulnerable communities living near the proposed structure.

Sierra Club members are working on getting the word out on the pending construction while still keeping an eye on another environmental fight they’re involved in out in Cameron County with the liquefied natural gas companies.

That fight, which began more than two years ago in March 2015, was prompted after Texas LNG Brownsville LLC and Annova LNG LLC, both of Houston, filed the necessary paperwork with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build facilities that would liquefy domestic natural gas for shipment overseas, largely to smaller Asian markets.

Three companies, Annova LNG, NextDecade LNG and Texas LNG, are seeking permission from FERC to build LNG export facilities at the Port of Brownsville. Backers of the projects tout economic benefits to the region. Environmentalists argue that any economic payoff would fail to outweigh the cost to the environment, tourism and public safety.

Despite having both issues to contend with, the border wall fight is most prominent at the moment, Nicol said.

He said their strategy is two-fold at the moment: rounding up support both from members of the public locally and nationally, but also by pressuring those in political leadership positions in their effort to get word out about the proposed border wall construction at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

“ Basically we’re really busy,” he said. “These are both issues that people really care about. We’re meeting people all the time saying, ‘we really care about this, and I want to be part of the resistance to border walls.’ The same thing has been happening for a couple of years now with the LNG fight; they find out about that threat looming, and they join us.”

Considered the “jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” Santa Ana features some of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, with more than 400 bird species and more than 450 plant species.

“ In both cases a big part of (the strategy) is getting the word out, informing people of the harm that will be done if LNG goes in to the Brownsville shipping channel, and informing people about the harm that will be done if the border walls are built. That’s part of it. If people don’t know, they rely on bogus statements,” Nicol said. “That’s the first big step, because this is still a democracy we need to have everybody informed about what’s going to happen that in turn will get people fired up because, oh wait, I care about the beach, or I care about Santa Ana, or I care about the private property rights.”

The second element of that strategy — to put pressure on politicians — began in mid-July when Sierra Club members gathered and sent more than 500 postcards to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, advocating against the border wall construction.

“ We’re trying to put pressure on decision-makers who have an impact on this. The House already voted for funding for the border wall but the Senate has not. So we’re trying to apply pressure to Sen. Cornyn, in particular. He should be standing up for South Texas. He represents all of Texas in the Senate, not just the wealthier urban areas. He should not be offering billions of dollars, some of which could be diverted to border walls, he should be saying no, there will be no border wall in my state as long as I’m in the Senate. He should stand up and work on our behalf, it’s going to take a good amount of pressure for that to happen, so we’re trying to mobilize people to apply that pressure to him,” Nicol said.

The strategy with LNG companies and that fight is slightly different, Nicol said, with more focus on applying pressure on the regulatory bodies that would ultimately make decisions on the companies.

He noted that, unlike in other fights, where litigation is a normal course of action, the border wall fight is unique in that land waivers have already been approved thus making that route inefficient.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced a waiver that would help expedite border wall construction in the San Diego sector, with construction that could begin as early as November, according to a news release.

“ In a normal situation it would be a very prominent strategy, it’s tougher because the Secretary of Homeland Security has the power to waive laws.” Nicol said.

Since the initial media reports of the activity surrounding the wall, and the confirmation from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials that the refuge would be a priority location for border wall construction by the government, Nicol said their group has added new allies for their cause, and additional financing for future events that he hopes will help in their fight.

“ We’re in better shape than we had been but it’s all money that’s put into the (border walls) fight immediately,” Nicol said. “Essentially we’re getting more donations but it’s for specific (things). If there is any money left after the event itself we’ll just have another event; buy more bumper stickers, that kind of thing.”

Nicol said members of Sierra Club, several NGOs and faith-based organizations will convene in solidarity this weekend Aug. 12 and Aug. 13 to protest the construction of the border walls.

He said they’re expecting a big turnout for the event that will begin at the La Lomita Chapel in Mission.

“ There have been pledges of support and interest and trying to amplify the message,” Nicol said. “We have a good balance amongst constituencies so it’s not just an environmental protest; it’s also a human rights protest, and a good governance protest. We want to make sure there is representation for all of the parties that would be negatively impacted by border wall construction.”