Permit delays spotlight DHS—Interior partnership under SBI

Cooperation between the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the US Interior Department came to light over the summer as DHS hit roughly three months of delay in the construction of the first surveillance towers, the posts of “virtual fencing” under the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet), in the US southwest along Arizona’s border with Mexico.
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“Forty percent of the southwestborder is land that belongs to the Department of Interior—whether it’s Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service or Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Interior spokesperson Chris Paolino told HSToday. “So throughout the building of the border fence, we have been working very closely with the Department of Homeland Security. We have proceeded down this path for all of the permitting for a number of projects.”
Congress authorized Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to waive environmental laws in the construction of physical fencing along the US southern border, but not with the SBInet surveillance system. The waivers of those laws for physical fencing resulted in automatic permits from the Interior Department. As a result, some officials at DHS were caught by surprise when the Interior Department notified US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the lead agency in SBInet, that it would need 60 to 90 days to process its applications for building the towers on park and refuge land in Arizona.
DHS submitted the application on July 10, hoping for the approval in order to proceed with the construction by July 15, according to sources. But Paolino suggested DHS had set its expectations too high, particularly since the agencies had worked together on permit issues in the past, and DHS officials were familiar with Interior procedures.
CBP spokesperson Barry Morrissey described the working relationship between DHS and the Interior Department as very good and said the delay was a result of a misunderstanding.
“With Boeing having subcontractors lined up and in place and anticipating a start date, we realized that start date was not realistic and asked Boeing to pull back. We cannot afford to pay contractors to sit alongside the road, waiting to start a job. We thought it wise to push back on this until we are in a position to begin the project,” he said.
Best use of time
CBP and its chief contractor, Boeing Co., Chicago, Ill., were using the downtime to run tests on the cameras and sensors designated for use on the towers in field locations that approximate the environmental conditions where they would ultimately go, Morrissey said. Boeing would have run these tests anyway, so the SBInet team hoped that running them during the permit delay would minimize the delay in accessing the construction sites.
The approvals from Interior were beginning to materialize at press time as the US Fish and Wildlife Service indicated in late August it would give initial approval to DHS for the construction of five of the surveillance towers on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, located southwest of Tucson, Ariz. Paolino characterized the review process for the DHS permits as a high priority for his department, likely to result in a relatively rapid approval.
In addition to the wildlife refuge, DHS requested permits in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and other areas along 53 miles of the Arizona border to build the surveillance towers, designed to detect illegal border crossings. The first permanent projects under SBInet are known as Tucscon-1 and Ajo-1, named for the areas covered in Arizona.

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