Fifty years ago last month, people took to the streets, demanding their government protect the environment.
Roughly 20 million people from Boston to Miami, Chicago to Austin, Denver to Pittsburgh marched with signs, donned respirator masks, rode in bicycle parades, and staged ‘die-ins,’ expressing alarm and outrage at the dangerous amounts of chemicals in the air and water, and at the environmental degradation that local and federal authorities allowed.
These massive demonstrations on the first Earth Day put in motion the political impetus needed to secure laws for waterways, species conservation, and the very air we breathe.
Bedrock environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act were subsequently enacted as a result of the political pressure generated by Earth Day and over the years have preserved natural lands, protected our air and water, and saved countless lives.
However, border residents are no longer fully protected by these laws. All federal laws and related state and local statutes may be “waived,” essentially ignored, in order to build border walls. In the Real ID Act of 2005, Congress granted the Secretary of Homeland Security the unprecedented power to dismiss laws which may interfere with “expeditious” barrier construction on the Southern U.S. border. To date, almost fifty laws have been waived up and down the border.
This has had grave consequences.
For a project as potentially damaging as the border wall, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would ordinarily require an Environmental Impact Statement to determine whether it should go forward and in what way. However, the Trump administration has waived NEPA for every border wall project they have begun. Border residents are therefore left in the dark, as preparation for environmental changes to come are impossible.
In Santa Teresa, New Mexico, a section of the border wall was built where the endangered Mexican gray wolf is known to cross the border. Blocking and fragmenting the habitat of a federally endangered species violates the Endangered Species Act, but the Trump administration waived that law, along with dozens of others, in 2017. With only about 150 of these wolves left in the wild, border walls are making their survival as a species much more difficult.
A portion of the wall set to be built across the San Pedro, the last free-flowing river in Arizona, could cause tremendous damage when its bollards clog with debris and annual flood water backs up, eroding river banks, causing flooding, and harming riparian habitats. The Clean Water Act, which makes this illegal, was waived to allow this reckless act.
Here in South Texas, waiving the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act means that the last remaining hotspots of biodiversity and natural lands preserved in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge will go unprotected and future generations will not be able to enjoy our special wildlands. There is now no legal way to forbid light pollution in the refuge tracts, and planned stadium lights at the wall will shine toward the river, onto what agents call “the enforcement zone.” This will cause loss of habitat for the endangered ocelots and other light-sensitive species that depend on the Rio Grande corridor.
Is heightened susceptibility to floods, polluted drinking water, habitat destruction, and loss of access to the river “securing the country?” What can we do, when here on the border, we are back to where we started before the first Earth Day?
The legislative victories won in the time of the first Earth Day may have had transformative impacts, but laws only work if they are enforced, equally, everywhere. As border residents, we must demand that our senators and representatives repeal the Real ID Act waiver authority, and take away President Trump’s power to suspend laws that throw us and the lands that we love into the myriad harms that border walls inflict.
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