Hidalgo County judge welcomes Chertoff’s waiver

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EDINBURG, RGV  – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may not like Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s waiver of environmental laws in order to build a border levee-wall, but Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas does.

In a statement, Salinas pointed to a recent economic impact study he commissioned which showed that if the county’s levees were breached the economy would take a $1.7 billion hit. He also said the levee-wall project would protect people and property from the threat of dangerous floods and save taxpayers a significant amount of money.

However, in a letter obtained by the Associated Press, Deputy Fish and Wildlife Director Kenneth Stansell expressed concern about Chertoff’s decision to waive environmental laws. “We were very concerned that after months of consultations on a proposed project design and reaching consensus on a way forward that satisfies the needs of both wildlife and a secure border, (Customs and Border Protection) would unilaterally propose a completely new design and request an immediate response from the (Fish and Wildlife) Service.”

Here is Salinas’ statement in full:

Today’s announcement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is a positive development for the residents of Hidalgo County. By working together, Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 and DHS are on its way to protect people and property from the threat of dangerous floods, protecting our economy from a devastating $1.7 billion blow that would result from a levee breach, and save taxpayers a significant amount of money.

The waiver for Hidalgo County allows Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 to move the collaborative levee barrier project forward by setting aside certain environmental and land management laws and lifting legal and administrative obstructions. This waiver gives DHS the mechanism to continue consultations with Hidalgo County and Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1. Today, the court was informed via a faxed letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham that a cooperative agreement is the appropriate method for executing the project.

Through this anticipated cooperative agreement, DHS states it “will transfer funding, plans, and other resources, to allow Hidalgo (County Drainage District No. 1) to implement the project to meet its flood mitigation needs, while also satisfying DHS’s requirements … to construct border infrastructure in an area of high illegal entry.” The next step in the process is to finalize the cooperative agreement with DHS before beginning construction on 22 miles of the concrete flood protection structure authorized by the waiver for Hidalgo County.

As it relates to Hidalgo County, the DHS waiver is responsive to the needs of our diverse border community. It is the result of listening to the concerns of those who opposed the construction of the border fence for various social, economic and environmental reasons, and it is the result of listening to those who wholeheartedly support rehabilitation of the deteriorated river levee system.

The Hidalgo County waiver does not halt environmental discussions on the project. DHS has stated that it “remains committed to protecting the Nation and deterring illegal entry and other crimes through control of the border, while acting to protect the environment…” Hidalgo County leaders are committed to listen to the concerns of various environmental groups concerned with the levee barrier plan and submit these concerns to the appropriate federal agencies with decision-making authority.

Hidalgo County has been at the forefront of the border fence issue from day one, pushing our elected officials in Washington to listen to community concerns and formulating a strategy to protect the residents of Hidalgo County from flood waters while accomplishing plans of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to protect the nation’s borders. It is a good day when Washington listens and responds to our needs. Hidalgo County appreciates the opportunity to continue consultations with DHS to make our community safer and more attractive to future smart development.

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