(CN) – Three environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday over the Trump administration’s waiver of more than two dozen conservation laws to build a 30-foot tall, 18-mile long border wall in the Rio Grande Valley.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Legal Defense Fund and Defenders of Wildlife filed the lawsuit in Washington, D.C, federal court, a week after the White House waived 28 environmental laws in preparation for construction of the section of border wall through a wildlife refuge in South Texas.
The lawsuit claims the Trump administration doesn’t have the authority to those laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Jean Su, an attorney for the Center for Wildlife Diversity, told Courthouse News that the administration’s move to bypass regulations and public comment periods without congressional approval is “completely unprecedented.”
“It’s federal law on the books that the administration needs to talk to the public about this before making this type of construction,” Su said, “and instead the administration has complete ignored those laws…and it’s an abuse of executive overreach in doing so.”
The Department of Homeland Security announced its waiver plan in two Federal Register filings released last week.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last week that the Rio Grande Valley "is an area of high illegal entry," the Associated Press reported.
Border Patrol apprehended more than 137,000 undocumented immigrants and seized about 260,000 pounds of marijuana in the area last year, according to the Federal Register filings
DHS said it’s waiving the laws to enact “expeditious construction” of the nearly 18-mile, 30-foot high levee-style wall, roads and border infrastructure in Hidalgo and Cameron counties.
The department was originally granted authority to waive environmental laws for border construction under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.
Under the Bush administration in the mid-200s, former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff used this law – with congressional approval – to build just under 700 miles of wall along the Mexican border, including 60 miles in the Rio Grande Valley. But it left some gaps, which the Trump administration says it is now trying to close.
Environmental groups are concerned that the wall in the Rio Grande Valley would cut through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the National Butterfly Center and the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park.
Su said that the construction poses a threat to endangered species and migratory birds, which regularly cross the border, and could cause flooding.
“It’s critical for the survival of threatened species because they need to find mates. They need to have genetic interchange,” said Su, “and so it’s absolutely critical for their natural migration to cross that wall.”
DHS has not released a timeline for the construction of the wall, but Texas Nature Conservancy spokesperson Vanessa Martin told the Texas Tribune that it had been told the project will be completed in spring of 2019.
Martin also told the Tribune that her organization sees the construction plan as a “looming threat.”
Similar lawsuits have also been filed to stop the construction of border walls in California and New Mexico, but so far no judge has halted wall construction.
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