The federal government is postponing construction on segments of President Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall that would cut through long stretches of protected Arizona desert.
On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security filed a brief in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., outlining plans to begin construction in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in early October.
The filing is part of a pending lawsuit against the agency by three conservation groups, which claim construction and presence of a wall in those areas would threaten endangered or threatened species.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Legal Defense Fund, want construction stopped in three Arizona federal preserves: Cabeza Prieta, Organ Pipe and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
The Tuscon-based conservation group, citing previous filings, characterizes the October construction date as a delay, citing a document that said work would start Aug. 22. The government agency says that’s not the case.
According to the department’s filing, work in these areas will be split into three parts. The government will replace two miles of wall in Organ Pipe starting Aug. 19 and push back the rest of the construction until at least early October.
Jean Su, an attorney for the center, said the group sees this delay as a “temporary sigh of relief” that gives the groups more time to strategize.
Last week, the center asked for a preliminary injunction against the government in hopes to block construction on the wall until a judge rules on the group’s pending lawsuit. In the July suit, the groups challenged the government’s decision to waive environmental and public health laws and claim it only did so to expedite construction.
Before the center filed, Su said, all construction was slated to start in late August. Su would not comment on the timing of the two actions and whether a change in date was correlated with their injunction.
“We can speculate, but we don’t know what the reason (behind the October construction date),” Su said, adding that she has not spoken directly with the agency about this change.
“But we do know that a week ago they told us a different construction schedule and after our filing, we now have a different schedule,” she said.
A lawyer representing the government and its proposed construction contractors did not comment either. Galen Thorp, senior legal counsel for the Department of Justice, said the agency is not postponing construction and stressed the filing is “explaining the current state of action under the contract.”
“Essentially, it’s a large contract and where the contract is starting is one portion,” Thorp said. “The other portions that are of concern to the plaintiffs (DHS) in that case won’t see construction until a later date.
“It’s not a postponement of construction.”
Thorp then referred further questions to a Department of Justice spokesperson, who referred questions to a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, who referred questions to a Department of Defense spokesman. None would comment or say whether the later construction date was an effort to work around the center’s injunction.
Construction could continue if a federal judge rules in September against the center. If the judge rules with the center, that could start conversations on how and when, if ever and to what extent, environmental laws may be waived.
Construction in the federal preserves, the center claims, violates the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and other laws that aim to protect air and water quality on public lands and the animals that live there.
Government attorneys have said these waivers comply with Congress’ intent on passing the REAL ID Act of 2005, which the environmental groups say was, and should remain, narrowly tailored and not broadly applied as precedent.
If the 2005 act continues to be used to justify more construction, the groups claim, that could imperil endangered or threatened species that have been found to live along the 2,000-mile border, like the jaguar, ocelot, Mexican gray wolf, bighorn sheep and the Sonoran pronghorn.
For now, Su said, the center will wait for the judge to decide while they prepare their next legal moves.
“The important part right now is that this is just a temporary stay and that we are looking for permanent protection and we’re going to do everything in our power to try to get that,” Su said.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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