|EDINBURG, April 24 - The Sierra Club Borderlands Team is hosting a public meeting at UT-Pan American on Thursday evening to discuss proposed border walls for Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos.
Scott Nicol, who heads the Borderlands Team, says that in addition to discussion on the new border walls he will also present a 20-minute video made by the Sierra Club entitled Wild vs. Wall. The meeting takes place in UTPA’s Health Science Center West building at 6 p.m. on Thursday.
“The meeting will be about how the new walls could affect flooding in the area and flooding to our neighbors on the other side of the river,” Nicol said, in an exclusive interview with the Guardian and KMBH Radio.
Nicol said the meeting will be informative because he has just gathered a lot of new information on the Department of Homeland Security’s border walls project, courtesy of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
Interestingly, the Corps provided Nicol with maps that maybe exempt from public release under FOIA. A notation says the maps are "not to be released to the public or other personnel who do not have a valid 'need-to-know' without prior approval of an authorized DHS official.” Nicol said he is not sure if he was supposed to get a copy of the maps but has posted them on the Internet to inform the public of what is going on.
Nicol and the Sierra Club Borderlands Team have been vociferous opponents of border walls. They believe the walls damage the wildlife, send the wrong message to one of the United States’ strongest allies, Mexico, and do not do what they are supposed to do – deter drug smuggling and undocumented immigration.
In his interview with the Guardian and KMBH, Nicol said new walls for Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos are particularly dangerous because they are to be built in floodplains. He noted that the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission initially said “no” to the border walls because they could impede the flow of storm water in the floodplain during a hurricane through the piling up of debris.
“About a year ago the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission unilaterally approved the construction of those walls despite objections from the Mexican half of the IBWC,” Nicol said.
Asked how the U.S. section of IBWC could decide to do something without approval from the Mexican section, Nicol said he was not sure.
“In 2011, the U.S. section of IBWC changed their mind on whether these walls would be a problem. They approached the Mexican section and the Mexican section said, ‘no, we don't think these walls are safe. We think the estimates that Customs and Border Protection on how badly they will block water during a flood are flawed.’ So, the Mexican section flatly rejected them in December of 2011.
“In February 2012, the U.S. section approved them anyway. One would think that as a bi-national organization one would have to have agreement for anything to go forward. Otherwise, Mexico could do all kinds of projects on their side of the river that could impact U.S. communities and the U.S. would be powerless to do anything about it. So, I do not understand why this is permissible.”
Nicol said his research shows Customs and Border Protection has received funding to build the walls in Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos. “According to a document dated March 1, they are planning to go ahead first with right of entry for surveys and then with condemnations in the next few weeks and months,” Nicol said.
Asked how many residents would be affected by the new walls, Nicol said: “I am not sure. I have not counted the number of landowners. There are documents that indicate in Roma up to 25 residencies could be impacted. In Rio Grande City there is a nursing home that could be impacted and possibly condemned, and in all three sections a lot of landowners who have already suffered condemnation could be condemned a second time because the precise location of the wall has shifted as much as a quarter mile north from where it was going to be.”
Nicol said the new walls for Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos have nothing to do with the current discussions in Washington, D.C., on border security and immigration reform. He pointed out these walls were first proposed in 2007.
“CBP could not build them because they wanted to build them in the floodplain. In Hidalgo and Cameron counties we have levees. The walls there could not be built between the levees and the river because of the flood risk,” Nicol said. “In Roma, Rio Grande City and Lose Ebanos there is no levee and so they could not build because a wall in the middle of a floodplain can act as a dam during a flood and potentially cause a loss of life and a loss of property. They basically had to get the U.S. section of IBWC to approve these walls before they could proceed.”
Asked if he had heard whether CBP plans to hold any public hearings about the new walls in Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos, Nicol said the agency does not have to. In the past, CBP would have had to do so but Michael Chertoff, when he was secretary of homeland security, waived a number of environmental laws including one governing public hearings.
“CBP has said repeatedly that they would hold public hearings once they got the funding to build these walls. They have the funding but they do not have any public hearings,” Nicol said. He also pointed out that last summer, CBP sent a representative to a meeting that IBWC held in Rio Grande City to talk about these walls. “Their representative did not present anything. He did not speak until he was spoken to. So, I do not know how CBP thinks that they are doing public outreach. As best I can tell, they are just not doing anything. I suspect they do not want the bad press,” Nicol said.