Republican Matthew A. Doheny wants border agents to be able to ignore environmental laws on federal lands, but his Democratic opponent in November 2012, Rep. William L. Owens, doesn’t think it’s necessary.
“I’m in favor, because we’re only dealing with federal lands,” Mr. Doheny said. “The impact in our district would be minimal at best.”
The legislation, sponsored by Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, would give the U.S. Border Patrol the authority to build buildings and roads and patrol in national parks and forests on federally managed land within 100 miles of the international border. Border agents would get exemptions in places including the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, though it is geared toward the nation’s southern border, Mr. Doheny and a spokeswoman for Mr. Bishop said. The legislation is still under consideration in the House of Representatives.
“Are they just going to be arbitrarily hanging out in these areas unnecessarily? Very unlikely,” said Melissa D. Subbotin. “There’s a lot of sensationalism going on with trying to scare people about what this bill will do and what it won’t do when in reality it’s about national security.”
But an environmental watchdog on the St. Lawrence River said the bill was “concerning” because, for example, expansions to the Wellesley Island border station wouldn’t be subject to any environmental review.
“That’s a pretty significant problem, when you consider that the health of the St. Lawrence River is so critical to our local communities,” said Jennifer J. Caddick, head of Clayton-based Save the River.
“Any border station expansion, building of roads or observation towers, those are some pretty significant projects in potentially sensitive areas,” she said.
Mr. Owens said he doesn’t support the bill because he doesn’t believe it is necessary.
“I was with some border patrol agents last week. No one has mentioned this to me as an issue,” Mr. Owens said. “It sounds to me like, in the absence of them asking for this kind of relief, that this may be something which has been invented in the mind of the member of Congress who is proposing it.”
Indeed, top Homeland Security officials have testified that such legislation isn’t needed, and a Government Accountability Office report didn’t raise any alarms, either.
Ms. Subbotin, the spokeswoman for the congressman who introduced the bill, said that Mr. Bishop heard from retired border officers on the southern border that this was a major problem.
“(T)he folks here in Washington would want the public to think everything is hunky dory,” she said. “I’ve been down there in closed door, anonymous meetings where we don’t know any of their names. They have said point blank that it’s an issue.”