Homeland Security issues waivers to quickly build new barriers as GAO cautions of insufficient planning.
The Homeland Security Department announced on Friday it was expediting the replacement of border barriers in several locations along the southwest border, the same day the government's top watchdog cited the department for not properly analyzing the cost or effectiveness of its border wall planning.
Homeland Security issued waivers allowing it to circumvent various environmental and land management laws as it replaces existing physical barriers in Arizona and Texas. The waivers will enable construction of 53 miles of new border wall, the department said, to replace “dilapidated and outdated designs.” Funding for the construction in the Yuma Sector of Arizona will stem from fiscal 2018 Customs and Border Protection appropriations, with the rest coming from spending provided to the Defense Department. DHS said it already has the authority to expedite construction to bypass the various federal construction laws.
Also on Friday, the Government Accountability Office issued its “priority open recommendations” for Homeland Security. Included among those problem areas was the department's failure to properly measure costs and effectiveness for barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The auditors said Customs and Border Protection has still not analyzed the costs associated with future barrier segments, which has left the agency at risk of prioritizing locations without efficiently using its resources. GAO cited a report it issued last year in which it found that without sufficient information on costs, a “Border Wall System Program will cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected.”
Customs and Border Protection officials told GAO the agency would revise its barrier prioritization process by September 2019. Department officials did not respond to inquiries about GAO’s findings.
DHS said the Army Corps of Engineers already awarded contracts for the replacement barriers earlier this month. The two contracts, one to Barnard Construction Co. and the other to SLSCO Ltd., are collectively worth nearly $1 billion. The department said that despite the expedited process, it would still make efforts to mitigate negative consequences of the wall's construction.
“While the waivers eliminate DHS’s obligation to comply with various laws with respect to covered projects, DHS remains committed to environmental stewardship,” the department said in a statement. “DHS has been coordinating and consulting, and intends to continue doing so, with other federal and state resource agencies to ensure that impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic artifacts are analyzed and minimized, to the greatest extent possible.”
While GAO said Homeland Security is not properly analyzing where it should prioritize border construction, DHS said the replacement barriers in Arizona and Texas will “impede and deny illegal border crossings and the drug and human smuggling activities of transnational criminal organizations.” The department said it is continuing to plan and design a new wall along the southern border. Trump has declared a national emergency to free up funds for additional wall construction, though that order is currently being challenged in court.