DHS gets draft permission for SBInet Towers

Days after it was told to stop work on the multibillion dollar SBInet border surveillance system because it didn't have federal permits, the Homeland Security Department has won a preliminary go-ahead to build a portion of the system through a federal wildlife refuge.

Today the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service (EWS) said it was giving preliminary approval to DHS'  Customs and Border Protection to build five permanent towers for the Secure Border Initiative Network on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.

That permission, which is now open for public comment, could become final as early as Sept. 8, said FWS Spokesman Jose Viramontes.

DHS officials said days ago they had halted construction of the SBInet system in Arizona due to a lack of permits from the Interior Department for the work.
Asked whether work would resume shortly on the Buenos Aires towers, DHS officials said no immediate response was available.

FWS concluded that while the construction of the five SBInet towers would cause temporary negative effects on the environment, in the long run -- and if the towers and system work as expected -- it would reduce the effects of illegal immigrants crossing the land.

Currently, the refuge suffers the effects of trash, abandoned vehicles, multiple human trails and other problems associated with the passage of 100,000 to 300,000 individuals using the land for illegal border crossings, Viramontes said. Also, enforcement efforts by border patrol agents also harm the sensitive environment, he said.

FWS released a 14-page draft compatibility determination today that assessed the impacts of the five permanent towers, which will replace five mobile towers placed on the land under the Project 28 prototype phase of SBInet that concluded in February.

The new SBInet surveillance towers will be 80 feet tall, and a single SBInet communication tower will be 120-feet tall. Each will be enclosed by a 50-foot by 50foot chain link fence with barbed wire on top. New roads will need to be built to access the towers, and overall about 3.24 acres will be affected, the compatibility statement said.

Although there will be negative effects from the tower construction, the wildlife refuge already is experiencing up to 500 tons of trash and more than 100 abandoned vehicles annually along with more than 1,300 miles of illegal trails created by illegal border crossers.

“The Refuge has determined that DHS’s proposal to construct 4 permanent surveillance towers and 1 communication tower on the Refuge is compatible with the purposes of the refuge, according to the draft finding,” a news release from the fish and wildlife agency states.

The refuge also was notified of DHS’ intent to construct seven additional SBInet towers on land adjacent to the refuge, and requiring temporary vehicle access through the refuge during construction, Viramontes said. The wildlife agency intends to work with Customs and Border Protection to facilitate access for building those additional towers, he said. It was not immediately clear whether the land in question is public or private land.

Prime contractor Boeing Co. stopped work on towers for SBInet because U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not received the necessary land use and environmental permissions from the Interior Department. Earlier this week, DHS Spokesman Michael Friel said work was not expected to resume until early 2009.

The project is comprised of cameras, radars and other sensors strung on towers. Its cost could exceed $30 billion.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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