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Trump administration sued for disregarding environment to build border wall, for third time
Hundreds of people march along a levee toward the Rio Grande to oppose the wall the U.S. government wants to build on the river separating Texas and Mexico on Aug. 12, 2017, in Mission, Texas. Eric Gay/AP

Three environmental groups filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Trump administration over its decision to waive environmental laws in favor of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

The lawsuit, which was filed against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen, comes after the DHS announced it would waive environmental laws for border wall construction in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to connect existing fences in the area. The border wall has long been a staple of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, though a majority of Texans and Americans in general oppose its construction.

In their legal challenge, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Legal Defense Fund claim the new border wall construction will “pose significant negative threats to wildlife, their habitats, and the greater surrounding ecosystem.” The planned wall will directly cut through several wildlife areas, including the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge; the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, which includes the headquarters of the World Birding Center; and the National Butterfly Center.

The Rio Grande border wall will also “directly destroy thousands of acres of native vegetation, causing the permanent loss of wildlife and their habitat,” the plaintiffs noted. The groups claim the border wall will block migration routes for animals, including endangered species like the ocelot as well as exacerbate flooding.

Map depicting the area of the Rio Grande Valley affected by the Department of Homeland Security’s waivers of environmental laws.
Map depicting the area of the Rio Grande Valley affected by the Department of Homeland Security’s waivers of environmental laws. Kara Clauser / Center for Biological Diversity

“There’s only 5% of native habitat left in the Rio Grande Valley, and most of that’s right by the river,” Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re proposing to cut right through that.

“The gravity of this waiver cannot be overstated,” he added, noting the waivers would cause “ecological devastation.”

A report released in September by organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club found existing border walls have already had a devastating impact on the environment. The 71-page report declared border walls “continue to cause tremendous environmental devastation” and harm border communities without significantly reducing immigration; “tendency for border walls to act like dams” alone has worsened flooding and resulted in millions of dollars in property damage.

Homeland Security is proposing to waive 28 laws in its Rio Grande construction, including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and National Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956. The environmental groups allege the administration does not have the power to do so, claiming regulations that give the Homeland Security Secretary authority to waive all legal requirements was intended to only apply to previous border wall construction in San Diego.

The plaintiffs also allege that Neilsen claiming authority to waive the environmental laws violates several aspects of the U.S. Constitution, including the Non-Delegation and Separation of Powers doctrines and the Presentment Clause.

Thursday’s lawsuit marks the third legal challenge by environmental groups against the Trump administration’s waiving of environmental rules in favor of border wall construction, following previous lawsuits in New Mexico and California. A federal district court judge sided with the Trump administration over the California challenge; the case was then heard in appeals court in August.

Construction on the Rio Grande border wall is slated to begin in February and, unless the court rules against the administration before then, it will likely not be affected by the lawsuit. The Trump administration still broke ground on past construction in spite of the pending legal challenges, the Los Angeles Times noted.