Trump administration waives environmental review to replace more San Diego border fencing

A portion of the secondary border fence winds through the Smuggler’s Gulch area between Tijuana and San Diego.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)
San Diego Union-Tribune

Describing San Diego’s border with Mexico as “an area of high illegal entry,” the Trump administration announced this week it is waiving environmental review requirements to speed up replacement of 12.4 miles of the secondary border fence.

This project was funded by a 2018 spending bill that allocated $251 million for border barrier construction in San Diego. It is not part of the $5.7 billion President Trump has demanded for border wall construction in the federal latest budget.

The project extends from the eastern end of Border Field State Park, east along the Tijuana River. There will also be about 1.5 miles of new secondary wall, a Border Patrol representative said, to “fill gaps in area where the existing secondary fence does not completely mirror the primary barrier.”

The new secondary barrier will be constructed of 30-foot-tall steel bollards — similar to the 14 miles of primary fencing that is currently being erected along the same stretch of land to replace older fencing.


This is the sixth waiver the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued since Trump’s election in 2016. Several federal laws have been interpreted to allow Washington to waive legally required environmental reviews in order to control the border.

In issuing the order Thursday, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen declared that conditions on the border necessitated this step.

“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States,” Nielsen’s public notice stated, “in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States in the project area.”

In the last fiscal year, the notice stated, the U.S. Border Patrol made more than 38,000 apprehensions and seized 8,700 pounds of marijuana, plus 1,800 pounds of cocaine in the San Diego sector.

“Build the wall” has been a Trump mantra since he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. In San Diego, however, much of the U.S.-Mexico border has been marked by tall fences for years.

Construction on the primary fence, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Otay Mountain, began in 1989. Made of 10-foot-tall Vietnam-era helicopter landing mats, this fence was welcome but proved ineffective. In 1994, Operation Gatekeeper brought more Border Patrol agents and new tactics to the border’s western-most five miles.

In 1996, the secondary fence of steel mesh was installed.

Apprehensions of illegal border crossers in the area steeply declined as crossing routes moved farther east.


In recent years, this barrier has been repeatedly breached, often by battery-powered saws that can rapidly create holes large enough for humans. The Border Patrol has covered some areas of the mesh with rolls of concertina wire to further deter breaches.

SLSCO Ltd., a Texas firm, has a $101 million government contract to replace that meshed fence with 30-foot-tall steel bollards. Thanks to the waiver, construction may begin as soon as this month.

The government is including “numerous relevant local, state and federal stakeholders” in the conversation about construction, a Border Patrol representative said without identifying them.

Environmental groups blasted the decision, saying the existing 600-plus miles of border barriers already harm more than a dozen rare species.


“It comes as no surprise that the Trump administration continues to bypass laws established to keep our communities and wildlife safe to further their dangerous border security agenda,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

In 2018, after similar waivers were issued to speed the construction of replacement fencing in San Diego and new fencing in Texas, the Trump administration was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The nonprofits argued that the waiver was unconstitutional, allowing Homeland Security to violate the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. Building barriers on the border, they maintained, could damage habitats, rare plants and threatened animals.

Last February, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel in San Diego dismissed the case, ruling in favor of the Trump administration. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.


Lawsuits are still pending on waivers DHS issued to hasten the construction of border barriers in New Mexico and another portion of the Texas-Mexico boundary.

“This is the sixth time the Trump administration has issued these waivers and we are fundamentally opposed to all of them,” said Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We think there is no justification for ignoring environmental, safety and health concerns to rush through this unnecessary wall.”

Will this waiver prompt a lawsuit?

“We are weighing our legal options,” Jordahl said.


Rowe writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.