WASHINGTON – The federal government has agreed to pay $1.2 billion to repair environmental damages and reinstate Pentagon projects sidelined by construction of the border wall, and will take steps to protect wildlife in the region.
The actions settle a lawsuit that 18 states and two private organizations filed against the former Trump administration. The settlement, announced Monday, would also block most further wall construction and require openings in the wall for stormwater and wildlife to pass through.
“The case is about accountability and it’s also about upholding human rights for people who live at the border, for our border residents,” said border resident Ricky Garza, an attorney for Southern Border Communities Coalition.
“It just is fundamentally unfair, that people who live in this region are not treated with the same equality under the law because of things like border waivers,” Garza said.
The SBCC was one of the parties in the suit, along with the Sierra Club and 18 states – which did not include Arizona. The settlement in Sierra Club v. Biden, originally Sierra Club v. Trump, is designed to mitigate the impact that construction has had on border communities and the endangered species found there.
“The settlement provides $45 million for mitigation of harms from the border wall, including for protection of wildlife,” Garza said. “So that’s everything from giving the state of California almost $25 million to purchase over 1,000 acres, just for conservation purposes, and over $1 million for wildlife studies on every species.”
The agreement calls for the Department of Homeland Security to create wildlife passages in the wall so wildlife can pass through at 20 small openings and four large ones, including passages at Pima and Cochise counties.
“It is something that is definitely going to help but I think we need more of those,” Sierra Club borderlands coordinator Erick Meza said of the passages. “We were only able to negotiate so many … but that’s something that is definitely going to have an impact,”
The large openings will be at least 5 by 7 feet to accommodate passage of jaguars, black bears, bison and more. One passage, at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Pima County, will have a ceiling height up to 18 feet to accommodate the Sonoran pronghorn.
Eight stormwater gates will also be installed along the border, five of them in Pima and Cochise counties.
DHS will be able to close the wildlife and stormwater passage temporarily when border security issues arise but it must notify the Sierra Club and SBCC within 48 hours, providing an explanation for the closure.
Meza said placement of the passages was very targeted, based on information from experts who monitor movements of the species and know key crossing points that were blocked by construction of the wall.
Construction of the wall has cut several species off from resources, like food and water, and from mating grounds which they have been using for thousands of years, Meza said.
“Hopefully with the positive results of these openings, the government is encouraged to open some more, or at least not build any more walls in these areas,” Meza said.
The settlement also calls for DHS to eliminate the use of razor wire along the border and to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the environmental impact that border surveillance lighting is having on the wildlife, namely in Yuma project areas.
Neither DHS nor the Fish and Wildlife Service immediately responded to requests for comment on the deal.
The settlement also includes $430 million that will be sent back to the military construction projects that lost funding for wall construction. Those projects are in the plaintiff states; California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.
While some border construction funded through other channels can continue in Yuma County and parts of Texas, the agreement says all border construction funded by the reallocated funds must stop.
The Biden administration announced plans in 2021 to halt wall construction, where possible, and return funding for Defense Department projects. Garza and Meza agree that the Biden administration may have helped bring the case to a settlement, but that it was the advocacy of plaintiffs that ultimately secured Monday’s success.
They also agreed that, in Garza’s words, “The fight definitely is not over. We know construction is going forward in a number of regions.”
“This is a success for border communities. This is something that really, I think should make any future administration or this one for that matter, think twice about acting without consulting border communities,” he said. “This shows that accountability does exist, and that there will be consequences if the administration wants to violate human rights at the border.”