Congress Still Attacking Environmental Laws: Permanent Waiver Of Environmental Laws Remains In Immigration Bill

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(09/24/1996) - Washington, D.C. - Senate and House members met today to hash out differences over the Immigration Reform Bill (H.R. 2202), but Republicans obstructed all attempts to remove a provision waiving crucial environmental laws. A permanent nationwide waiver of both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for border control activities remains in the Immigration Bill despite strong opposition from many sides.

"Members are giving election-time promises to protect our natural heritage, but they are continuing to attack our nation's most important environmental laws during their last days in Washington. Congress seems to be running for green cover in there districts, but in Washington it is politics as usual," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife.

Republicans in the conference committee obstructed attempts by ranking minority member John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) to remove the anti-environmental waivers. As approved by the conference committee, the Immigration Reform Bill permanently eliminates all consideration of environmental impacts caused by the construction of roads, fences, and other barriers to control illegal immigration along the U.S. border. But road construction, fence building, bridge erection and other barrier construction can have a major impact on cross border species, such as the endangered Sonoran Pronghorn antelope and the ocelot, an endangered cat.

The ESA requires federal agencies to avoid adverse impacts on endangered and threatened species, while NEPA requires agencies to consider all reasonable alternatives before investing taxpayer funds and to provide citizens with opportunities to comment and review federal projects.

Final passage of the Immigration Bill is expected in the House on Wednesday, but the Bill will run up against a more deliberate Senate. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Chafee (R-RI) and Ranking Member Max Baucus (D-MT) wrote a letter in July to the authors of the Immigration Bill asking that the environmental waivers be removed. Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, and Katie McGinty, from the President's Council for Environmental Quality, have strongly objected to the waivers.

"This radical Congress failed to gut the Endangered Species Act this session, so they are trying to use the backdoor approach. Despite opposition from moderate Republicans, including Rep. Boehlert (R-NY), these anti-environmental extremists still insist on unnecessary environmental waivers," said Schlickeisen. "They are fooling themselves if they think the American public is going to forgive and forget in November."

"Environmental conservation and border control are not mutually exclusive," said Heather Weiner, Legislative Counsel for Defenders. The agency responsible for implementing NEPA, the President's Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), also confirms that NEPA is flexible enough to expedite emergency border controls. Recently the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) asked the CEQ to review plans to build roads and a helispot on BLM land near the border area because an emergency related to high illegal alien use and high forest fire risk required quick action. CEQ required only 24 hours to consult with BLM and the construction took place immediately.

Defenders predicts that the environmental impacts of these waivers, if signed by President Clinton, would primarily affect southwestern species like the Arizona Sonoran Pronghorn antelope, the endangered ocelot, and jaguar. "Under a future Attorney General, this provision could adversely affect northern species such as the grizzly bear and gray wolf," said Weiner.

"It is once again up to President Clinton to defend our natural heritage against the relentless attacks by this anti-environmental Congress," said Schlickeisen. "I hope that he will remain dedicated, during the fight over the Immigration Bill, to upholding the laws protecting our nation's precious natural resources."

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Contact(s):

Joan Moody, 202-682-9400 x220 (Media)