THURS: NM delegation writes bills to pay Cerro Pelado Fire victims and expand deadline for $4B wildfire fund, + More
NM delegation writes bills to pay Cerro Pelado Fire victims, expand deadline for $4B wildfire fund - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
New Mexico members of Congress announced Thursday they had introduced legislation to expand compensation to victims of three wildfires accidentally set in the state by the federal Forest Service last spring.
In late April of last year, three wildfires roared to life after being ignited as prescribed burns by the Forest Service. Two of them – the Cerro Pelado Fire and the Calf Canyon Fire – started as pile burns that were left to smolder unattended and then broke out into wildfires. A third, the Hermits Peak Fire, was a broadcast burn that escaped from an understaffed crew near Hermits Peak on a dry, windy day in early April.
Since then, Congress has tasked the Federal Emergency Management Agency with compensating victims of two of those fires, which later merged into the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and became the biggest in state history. Recently, after more than a year of silence, the Forest Service acknowledged it had also ignited the Cerro Pelado Fire near Los Alamos.
Three members New Mexico’s Congressional delegation, including Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, have sought compensation for those who suffered losses in those fires, including leading an effort late last year to secure nearly $4 billion in funding for thousands of people who lost their homes and livelihoods in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.
On Thursday, they announced a pair of bills to expand on those efforts. Both bills were introduced Tuesday.
One bill would establish a claims office for the Cerro Pelado Fire, with separate FEMA employees and its own pot of money, to compensate people for the 49,000-acre blaze that destroyed at least 10 structures. The bill does not say how much money might be required to pay them, though Luján noted that no money would come from the fund established for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire survivors.
The other bill would give those in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar additional time to file claims for compensation. The bill signed a year ago by President Joe Biden gave victims until November 2024 to file a claim for damages. The bill, if it’s approved in Congress, would move that deadline until the end of 2027.
Moving the deadline acknowledges the ongoing damage occurring in the 534-square-mile burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. More than a year after the fire, flooding and debris flows remain common in the area, particularly in the rural, mountainous communities that draw water from acequias.
Such flooding is expected for at least several more years, and some fire survivors have expressed concern about how they’ll be paid for damages that occur after the deadline next year.
“The fire was not the end of the heartache for our communities,” said Leger Fernández in a news release. “The burn scar created by this man-made disaster has left our people in the path of dangerous floods.”
More than a year since Biden signed the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act into law, FEMA has so far paid $84 million of the $3.95 billion awarded, or just over 2% of the total.
This is only the second time FEMA has been tasked with compensating those affected after a wildfire the feds set accidentally. The first time was also in New Mexico, after the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos in 2000.
The harm celebrating Oñate creates: What people were asking for in Española before the shooting - Megan Gleason and Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico
Before an extremist shot Jacob Johns (Hopi, Akimel O’odham) in Española on Sept. 28, community members spent the morning together for a sunrise prayer ceremony and the afternoon together for a celebration of sorts.
They expressed relief as Rio Arriba County officials indefinitely postponed the reinstallation of a statue of violent war criminal Juan de Oñate, someone who tried to eradicate Pueblo culture by killing and enslaving hundreds of Native Americans in the 1600s.
Native activists had been sleeping outside Rio Arriba County buildings for days last week, trying to prevent the reinstallation.
Officials decided to postpone it Sept. 27, the day before they had planned to put it back up, “in the interest of public safety.”
Native activists and other community members never want to see the statue back up at all.
It’s unclear how long the statue’s postponement will last or if the reinstallation will be canceled altogether. A county commission meeting on Oct. 5 does not have discussions about the statue on its agenda.
Malaya Peixinho is a 23-year-old community member who came to the event to support her aunties and grandmothers. She looked down the barrel of a gun pulled by a Donald Trump supporter who came to the peaceful gathering last week.
Before that, she was celebrating the delay.
“We came together, and we prayed, and we celebrated as a family that we were able to postpone this statue,” Peixinho told Democracy Now! on Tuesday.
Instead of spending over $100,000 to put the statue back up, community members asked officials to refocus the investment.
“I didn’t feel it was right for our community money, that could be spent on resources and support and our healing of our community, to be spent on this statue,” Peixinho said.
Indigenous activists present on Sept. 28 also asked officials to change the name of Oñate Street, preferably to Tewa Valley Road.
Justine Teba (Santa Clara, Tesuque, Acoma) said last week there needs to be more respect for tribal sovereignty, accessible housing, compassionate health care treatment and counseling.
Teba, a member of The Red Nation, also called for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives crisis to end, along with hetero-patriarchal violence and border town violence.
Jennifer Marley, another Red Nation member, said this is also connected to the environment. Marley (San Ildefonso) said Native people should “have access to clean water and air and soil so we can plant.”
“How come we are still suffering the same ills we have since colonization started on these lands?” she said.
The violence on Sept. 28 was just a continuation of generations of harm, death and systemic oppression faced by Indigenous peoples, said Johns, the Indigenous activist who was shot.
As of Wednesday, he was recovering in the hospital, in critical but stable condition.
“This draws attention to the lengthy history of injustices against Indigenous peoples by dehumanizing systems and divisive ideologies the community was protesting,” Johns said in a written statement by his family on Tuesday.
Johns’ mother LaVerne McGrath said she hopes the tragedy can lead to systemic changes “in which Indigenous peoples and other historically oppressed peoples are not downplayed.”
Celina Montoya-Garcia (Ohkay Owingeh) told Source NM last week community embraced those who opposed the statue going back up, bringing food and water and prayers. She said organizers invited them to set their intentions on the altar they had set up on and around the slab.
“We’ve definitely felt very loved by this, by the community,” she said.
Montoya-Garcia said she invited people who showed up with aggressive intent to pray with them as well, but that didn’t happen. People taking part of a prayer circle on the morning of Sept. 28 had to repeat requests to one woman who walked up to stop recording.
Before Thursday, Montoya-Garcia said no conflicts had escalated.
“We’ve been doing our best, despite our trigger responses as peoples are on the front lines all the time, to remain calm and grounded,” she said. “The main intention is knowing no aggression whatsoever.”
As she spoke to Source NM, those there in opposition of the statue tore up and threw away signs at least one person — who declined to speak with Source NM when asked — had put up that morning advocating for the Oñate statue.
During Montoya-Garcia’s speech to everyone, she said she’s tired of repeating the same things. She said she was there so her children and others’ could feel safe as Indigenous people, despite those coming into the area and disrespecting them.
“Our prayers are louder than your hate,” she said.
Maurus Chino said there’s an obsession in New Mexico with “the violent and brutal past,” like with the Oñate statue, and it reflects the high violence rates in the state. Chino (Acoma) said people don’t have to celebrate history, and they should acknowledge the dark past.
“I will say this with all my heart: I despise your celebrations. I despise what you believe in,” he said. “We have a right to be here. This is our land. It’s not yours. It wasn’t yours to begin with. It was stolen.”
Chino said he started taking social action in 1994 when he first heard the Oñate statue was going to go up. He wrote a letter to the then-Secretary of Interior, but it didn’t make a difference. The statue went up anyway because it was already funded, he said.
“There’s been corruption since the day Oñate crossed the Rio Grande to come into New Mexico,” he said. “It has never ended.”
As important as it is to recognize Oñate’s violence, Peixinho said it’s more important to recognize the pain and suffering in the community today.
“I see how some funds for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, some funds for our alarming rates of overdoses, our housing crisis, that feels more important than funding a statue being resurrected,” she said.
Dr. Christina Castro said Indigenous people did the work to get the statue removed in 2020, and now they have to do it all over again. Castro (Taos, Jemez) said it’s a way to constantly keep Native people in defense mode.
“The state still continues to protect these monuments in spite of knowing that they cause harm,” she said. “And so this is a direct attack on Indigenous people.”
She pointed to the disparities in Rio Arriba County — a community who’s largely Hispanic and Indigenous with high violence and poverty rates — and the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court decision which found education for Native students and others in New Mexico to be constitutionally inadequate.
“I understand the frustration people feel about these symbols in their community that they’ve maybe been seeing their whole life, but these symbols cause harm to the minds and identities of young people,” Castro said.
Castro said working to prevent the Oñate statue from coming back up is lightwork compared to what her ancestors endured in the colonial times. Indigenous people have a story of resistance, she said, and this is carrying on what their ancestors did.
“Everything that we have in the system we’ve had to fight for, and sometimes give our lives for,” she said.
Mohammed el-Kurd, a Palestinian writer and poet, said as someone who was born and raised in occupied Palestine, he identifies with Indigenous people’s struggle for sovereignty. He said he’s disgusted by those who “have nothing better to do than to celebrate the legacy of a murderous war criminal.”
“You can build a much better legacy,” he said. “You can wash your hands of this blood.”
Gary Goddard was at the protest in 2020 with his son when officials removed the statue. He compared the Oñate statue to the Confederate scope of statues in the Southern U.S. of people who were fighting for slavery.
“Oñate is a symbol,” he said. “He represents nihilism.”
He said Rio Arriba County Commissioner Alex Naranjo is trying to make his own decision to put a sculpture up that his relative Emilio Naranjo was instrumental in first erecting, instead of engaging in community dialogue.
“It needs to be part of a community discussion, not just forced upon the community,” Goddard said.
Elite pilots prepare for 'camping out in the sky' as they compete in prestigious ballooning race - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Flying high in the air, pilots Barbara Fricke and Peter Cuneo will have little room to stretch their long legs in a small basket. A solar panel, Cheez-Its and a GPS unit will also take up space as the accomplished Albuquerque ballooning pilots compete to travel the farthest distance in one of the world's most prestigious races.
They'll at least have a trap door on the side of the 4 feet by 5 feet wide basket so they can stretch out if needed.
"You've got to start thinking — yes, I'm going to live in this basket for three days, and this is going to be home, and I'm just camping out in the sky," Fricke said.
The pair will be among three American teams in a gas balloon race with roots that stretch back more than a century. What's more, it's been 15 years since the world's elite ballooning pilots have gathered in the United States.
The pilots will be launching for this year's Gordon Bennett competition during an international balloon fiesta that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators to the heart of New Mexico each fall. The race has been held in the United States only 13 times before, and this will be the fifth time the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has played host.
The launch window opens Saturday evening for what is billed as one of the biggest events in aviation. The winner is the one who flies the farthest distance.
Some worry that the massive spheres could be mistaken for Chinese spy balloons as they traverse the upper reaches of America's airspace. But the pilots who will be racing aren't worried. They're more concerned about charting a course that will keep them out of bad weather and give their hydrogen-filled balloons a path to victory.
There are no stops to refuel or to pick up extra supplies. They will be aloft for days, carrying everything they need to survive at high altitude as they search for the right combination of wind currents to push their tiny baskets as far as they can go. Prevailing winds are expected to carry the competitors through the Midwest toward the northeastern U.S. and potentially into Canada.
A Belgium team holds the record for traveling just over 2,112.9 miles in 2005. A German team was added to the record books for staying aloft the longest — more than 92 hours — during the 1995 competition. Willi Eimers, a member of that German team, holds the record for the number of times a pilot has competed in the race. He and his son, Benjamin, are back this year to defend their title.
The American teams are also accomplished. Fricke and husband Cuneo's ballooning résumé includes four wins in the America's Challenge long-distance gas balloon race, and third- and fourth-place finishes in previous Gordon Bennett competitions.
Another U.S. entry in the race is the team of Mark Sullivan and Cheri White, both of whom have a long list of accolades: Sullivan holds the record for the most competition gas balloon flights — 25 Gordon Bennett flights and 21 America's Challenge races, while White has flown in the Gordon Bennett 14 times, the most ever by a female pilot.
Sullivan, president of the FAI Ballooning Commission, said this will be an important year as the fiesta is partnering with hydrogen company BayoTech on a new system to convert high-pressure gas typically used for the long-haul trucking industry and other vehicles so that it can fill the race balloons.
Pilots and organizers say hydrogen has been hard to come by. Never mind the cost — it can be a few thousand dollars to fill a 1,000 cubic meter balloon.
Sullivan got his first taste of gas ballooning in 1985. After launching from a rural area east of Albuquerque, he and fellow pilot Jacques Soukup tried to land in West Texas. The wind was howling, and they busted through a barbed wire fence. They bailed from the basket as it got dragged for another a mile, crashing through more barbed wire and herds of horses and cattle.
The balloon was shredded, the basket was mangled and Sullivan was hooked on the sport.
Competitive gas ballooning is something of an exclusive club, but Sullivan and others are trying to get a new generation involved by training younger pilots.
There have been many technological advancements over the years — baskets are now made of carbon fiber, mapping and tracking apps are top-notch, and equipment is getting lighter and more compact.
But the pilots still take great pains to ensure sure they're at fighting weight. Every pound shaved means they might be able to add another ballast — extra weight in the form of sandbags or water jugs that are used to help keep the balloon flying longer.
Unlike the colorful hot air balloons that ascend en masse during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta by using heated ambient air, gas balloons have an envelope filled with a gas lighter than air — usually hydrogen. Some of the gas is lost as it expands and contracts as temperatures fluctuate throughout the day, so pilots get rid of ballast to maintain altitude.
Teams dress in layers — long johns, hats, gloves and hand warmers for the frigid overnight and morning hours. In the afternoon, the sun can be more intense at high altitude.
Sullivan, 73, spent last week getting his basket ready and reviewing his checklist. It depends on where he and White are flying, but sometimes survival suits and inflatable life rafts are on the list.
He recalled the Gordon Bennett competition that occurred after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The gas balloons were the only things in the sky as planes were still grounded.
In 1995, two fellow Americans were killed when they were shot down over Belarus by the military. Sullivan and his copilot were detained when they landed in the country.
Every flight is different, with the pilots never sure about where they might land. Risk is inherent, and they know how far they can push the envelope.
"It's the adventure," Sullivan said. "Every year when we land, we say, 'We're not doing this. It's crazy.' Then you decide, OK, let's go up there. Because once you get up there, it's wonderful — just that experience of flying."
$228M awarded to some plaintiffs who sued Nevada-based bottled water company after liver illnesses - Associated Press
A jury has awarded more than $228 million in damages to several plaintiffs who sued a Las Vegas-based bottled water company after its product was linked to liver illnesses, a newspaper reported Thursday.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that jurors determined Real Water and two other defendants in the case were liable for $28.5 million in compensatory damages and $200 million in punitive damages.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Real Water and the Review-Journal said the case that resulted in Wednesday's verdict was the first to go to trial.
Plaintiffs in the case included the family of a 69-year-old woman who died from liver failure in 2020 and the family of a 7-month-old boy who was hospitalized with severe liver failure, according to the newspaper.
In the lawsuit, plaintiffs alleged faulty testing meters produced by the companies contributed to toxic chemicals found in the water.
Joel Odou, an attorney for Real Water, told jurors the company tested the water but did not know to test for hydrazine — a toxic chemical used in rocket fuel.
In May 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers, restaurants and retailers not to drink, cook with, sell or serve Real Water.
The product was sold at stores throughout the Southwest including Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and the Los Angeles area and also was delivered to homes in large bottles before being pulled off shelves in March 2021.
Affinitylifestyles.com marketed Real Water in boxy blue plastic bottles as mineral-rich, "infused with negative ions" and "the healthiest drinking water available."
Affinitylifestyles.com was headed by Brent Jones, who served as a Republican Nevada state Assembly member from 2016 to 2018. The company did not dispute that the water was drawn from the public Las Vegas-area water supply.
Telephone calls to Jones by The Associated Press on Thursday seeking comment on the jury's verdict rang busy.
Further evidence points to footprints in New Mexico being the oldest sign of humans in Americas - By Christina Larson AP Science Writer
New research confirms that fossil human footprints in New Mexico are likely the oldest direct evidence of human presence in the Americas, a finding that upends what many archaeologists thought they knew about when our ancestors arrived in the New World.
The footprints were discovered at the edge of an ancient lakebed in White Sands National Park and date back to between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago, according to research published Thursday in the journal Science.
The estimated age of the footprints was first reported in Science in 2021, but some researchers raised concerns about the dates. Questions focused on whether seeds of aquatic plants used for the original dating may have absorbed ancient carbon from the lake — which could, in theory, throw off radiocarbon dating by thousands of years.
The new study presents two additional lines of evidence for the older date range. It uses two entirely different materials found at the site, ancient conifer pollen and quartz grains.
The reported age of the footprints challenges the once-conventional wisdom that humans didn't reach the Americas until a few thousand years before rising sea levels covered the Bering land bridge between Russia and Alaska, perhaps about 15,000 years ago.
"This is a subject that's always been controversial because it's so significant — it's about how we understand the last chapter of the peopling of the world," said Thomas Urban, an archaeological scientist at Cornell University, who was involved in the 2021 study but not the new one.
Thomas Stafford, an independent archaeological geologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was not involved in the study, said he "was a bit skeptical before" but now is convinced.
"If three totally different methods converge around a single age range, that's really significant," he said.
The new study isolated about 75,000 grains of pure pollen from the same sedimentary layer that contained the footprints.
"Dating pollen is arduous and nail-biting," said Kathleen Springer, a research geologist at the United States Geological Survey and a co-author of the new paper. Scientists believe radiocarbon dating of terrestrial plants is more accurate than dating aquatic plants, but there needs to be a large enough sample size to analyze, she said.
The researchers also studied accumulated damage in the crystal lattices of ancient quartz grains to produce an age estimate.
Ancient footprints of any kind — left by humans or megafauna like big cats and dire wolves — can provide archaeologists with a snapshot of a moment in time, recording how people or animals walked or limped along and whether they crossed paths. Animal footprints have also been found at White Sands.
While other archeological sites in the Americas point to similar date ranges — including pendants carved from giant ground sloth remains in Brazil — scientists still question whether such materials really indicate human presence.
"White Sands is unique because there's no question these footprints were left by people, it's not ambiguous," said Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas, who was not involved in the study.
Voter rolls are becoming the new battleground over secure elections as amateur sleuths hunt fraud - By Morgan Lee and Anthony Izaguirre Associated Press
A group has been impersonating government officials, harassing New York residents at their homes and falsely accusing them of breaking the law, state officials have warned.
But what sounds like a scam aimed at people's pocketbooks is actually part of a shakedown with a much different target: voters.
State prosecutors have sent a cease-and-desist order to a group called New York Citizens Audit demanding that it halt any "unlawful voter deception" and "intimidation efforts."
It's the type of tactic that concerns many state election officials across the country as conservative groups, some with ties to allies of former President Donald Trump and motivated by false claims of widespread fraud in 2020, push to access and sometimes publish state voter registration rolls, which list names, home addresses and in some cases party registration. One goal is to create free online databases for groups and individuals who want to take it upon themselves to try to find potential fraud.
The lists could find their way into the hands of malicious actors and individual efforts to inspect the rolls could disenfranchise voters through intimidation or canceled registrations, state election officials and privacy advocates warned. They worry that local election offices may be flooded with challenges to voter registration listings as those agencies prepare for the 2024 elections.
John Davisson, director of litigation at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the concern reflects the competing interests over voter data – a need to protect voter rolls from cybersecurity attacks against the desire to make them accessible so elections are transparent.
"It's not surprising that this is a battleground right now," he said.
Baseless claims of widespread voter fraud are part of what's driving the efforts to obtain the rolls, leading to lawsuits over whether to hand over the data in several states, including Maine, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.
In New York, a warning from the state elections board preceded the cease-and-desist letter from the state attorney general's office. Voters in 13 counties had been approached at their homes in recent weeks in an apparently coordinated effort by people impersonating election officials, in some cases wielding phony IDs, the board said. Residents were confronted about their voter registration status and accused of misconduct.
In one instance, people wearing identification badges accused a woman at her Glens Falls home of committing a crime by apparently being registered to vote in two counties, said Warren County spokesman Don Lehman. But the woman had already filed to change her registration and canvassers were apparently using out-of-date information, he said.
"She was quite shaken by the whole thing," Lehman said. "She did nothing nefarious at all. Either these people don't understand that or understand how the process works, but it seems like they were quite accusatory."
State prosecutors found no evidence that any of the those contacted had committed voter fraud or any other type of crime, they said in their warning letter.
NY Citizens Audit emailed a statement that dismissed as "absurd" concerns that its canvassers might have impersonated an official or harassed anyone. Instead, the group urged election officials to investigate "each of these millions of suspected illegal registrations."
"We train our people to do legal canvassing, and if ever verified, voter intimidation would be completely unacceptable and against our policy," NY Citizens Audit Director Kim Hermance said in the statement.
One of the most ambitious groups, the Voter Reference Foundation, was founded after the 2020 presidential election by Republican Doug Truax of Illinois with a goal of posting online lists from every state. The VoteRef.com database so far includes information from 32 states and the District of Columbia and is run by Gina Swoboda, a former organizer of Trump's 2020 campaign in Arizona.
A federal trial is scheduled to start later this month over the group's fight to access and use New Mexico's voter registration list.
The group also sued Pennsylvania, which refused to hand over the information and said that publishing it would put every registered voter at greater risk of identity theft or misuse of their information, said the state's Office of Open Records.
Truax declined to speak to The Associated Press, but has said in a statement on the Pennsylvania case that, "We have a crisis of confidence in America when it comes to election results, and the answer is more transparency, not less."
The head of elections in New Mexico, Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, fears many voters might withdraw from registration lists as personal data is posted online. Her office cites email inquiries about how to cancel voter registrations during a short-lived canvassing effort by election activists last year in southern New Mexico.
"Voters can and should expect a reasonable amount of privacy," said Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat. "What Voter Reference is doing is saying, 'If you have doubts about the election and who is registered to vote and who is voting, here is every voter's information. Go out and figure it out for yourself whether these people are real.'"
The Voter Reference Foundation argues that federal law is on its side, citing public disclosure provisions of the National Voter Registration Act that require states to make a "reasonable" effort to keep the registration lists free of people who died or moved away. The foundation also invokes free speech and due-process rights.
Nearly every state prohibits the use or transfer of the lists for commercial purposes, while several confine access to political candidates, parties for campaign purposes and some government activities.
In March, New Mexico banned the transfer or publication of voter data online, with felony penalties and possible fines of $100 per voter.
Virginia data was removed from VoteRef.com after Republicans and Democrats united last year to ban online publication of registrations.
In Maine, an ongoing legal dispute over privacy and the use of voter lists is pitting state election regulators against a conservative-backed group that has been highlighting and litigating what it says are shortcomings in election systems for a decade. It has assembled voter rolls from multiple states.
The state historically provided voter registration lists to candidates and political parties before being sued in 2019 for failing to provide its voter list to the Public Interest Law Foundation. In 2021, Maine's governor signed a bill allowing the voter registration lists to be turned over to additional organizations, but with a stipulation that no voter names could be published in a way that compromises privacy.
The restrictions interfere with comparing lists across states, said the group's president, J. Christian Adams, whose case against the state is scheduled for legal arguments Thursday at a Boston federal appeals court. Adams, a Republican, served on a commission Trump convened after his 2016 win to investigate voter fraud. The commission was disbanded without any finding of widespread fraud.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, said residents sharing details about voters, including addresses, is a bad idea.
"In an era of conspiracies and lies about our elections, integrity of voter information is hugely important," she said. "We want to make sure that no voters are targeted or harassed or threatened because of their decision to register and cast a ballot."
Biden administration waives 26 federal laws to allow border wall construction in South Texas - By Valerie Gonzalez Associated Press
The Biden administration announced it waived 26 federal laws in South Texas to allow border wall construction on Wednesday, marking the administration's first use of a sweeping executive power employed often during the Trump presidency.
The Department of Homeland Security posted the announcement on the U.S. Federal Registry with few details outlining the construction in Starr County, Texas, which is part of a busy Border Patrol sector seeing "high illegal entry." According to government data, about 245,000 illegal entries have been recorded so far this fiscal year in the Rio Grande Valley Sector which contains 21 counties.
"There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States in the project areas," Alejandro Mayorkas, the DHS secretary, stated in the notice.
The Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and Endangered Species Act were some of the federal laws waived by DHS to make way for construction that will use funds from a congressional appropriation in 2019 for border wall construction. The waivers avoid time-consuming reviews and lawsuits challenging violation of environmental laws.
Starr County's hilly ranchlands, sitting between Zapata and McAllen, Texas, is home to about 65,000 residents sparsely populating about 1,200 square miles (3,108 square kilometers) that form part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Although no maps were provided in the announcement, CBP announced the project in June and began gathering public comments in August when it shared a map of the additional construction that can add up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the existing border barrier system in the area. Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said it will start south of the Falcon Dam and go past Salineño, Texas.
"The other concern that we have is that area is highly erosive. There's a lot of arroyos," Eloy Vera, the county judge said, pointing out the creeks cutting through the ranchland and leading into the river.
Concern is shared with environmental advocates who say structures will run through public lands, habitats of endangered plants and species like the Ocelot, a spotted wild cat.
"A plan to build a wall through will bulldoze an impermeable barrier straight through the heart of that habitat. It will stop wildlife migrations dead in their tracks. It will destroy a huge amount of wildlife refuge land. And it's a horrific step backwards for the borderlands," Laiken Jordahl, a southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Wednesday afternoon.
During the Trump administration, about 450 miles (724 kilometers) of barriers were built along the southwest border between 2017 and January 2021. Texas Governor Greg Abbott renewed those efforts after the Biden administration halted them at the start of his presidency.
The DHS decision on Wednesday contrasts the Biden administration's posturing when a proclamation to end the construction on Jan. 20, 2021, stated, "building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution."
In a statement Wednesday, CBP said the project is consistent with that 2021 proclamation. "Congress appropriated fiscal year 2019 funds for the construction of border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley, and DHS is required to use those funds for their appropriated purpose," the statement said. "CBP remains committed to protecting the nation's cultural and natural resources and will implement sound environmental practices as part of the project covered by this waiver."
The announcement prompted political debate by the Democratic administration facing an increase of migrants entering through the southern border in recent months, including thousands who entered the U.S. through Eagle Pass at the end of September.
"A border wall is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem. It will not bolster border security in Starr County," U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar said in a statement. "I continue to stand against the wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on an ineffective border wall."
Political proponents of the border wall said the waivers should be used as a launching pad for a shift in policy.
"After years of denying that a border wall and other physical barriers are effective, the DHS announcement represents a sea change in the administration's thinking: A secure wall is an effective tool for maintaining control of our borders," Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in a statement. "Having made that concession, the administration needs to immediately begin construction of wall across the border to prevent the illegal traffic from simply moving to other areas of the border."