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CBP Agrees To Limit US Border Light Pollution

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Environmental controversies over the border wall are nothing new. The construction of the border wall between the United States and Mexico has raised numerous environmental concerns that have largely been overlooked by the federal government.

One of the primary environmental concerns associated with the border wall is its impact on wildlife. The wall fragments habitats and disrupts migration patterns, posing a significant threat to the survival of various species. Animals such as the Mexican gray wolf, jaguars, ocelots, and bighorn sheep rely on cross-border movements for their genetic diversity and access to resources. By impeding their movement, the wall puts these already vulnerable species at further risk of extinction.

Another pressing issue is the destruction of sensitive ecosystems. The construction process involves clearing large swaths of land, which leads to the loss of essential habitats for plants and animals. This is particularly concerning in areas like the Rio Grande Valley, home to a unique mix of subtropical, desert, and aquatic ecosystems. The border wall not only destroys these delicate habitats, but also disrupts the natural flow of water, exacerbating erosion and flooding.

Government projects are supposed to adhere to environmental rules designed to alleviate these problems, but Customs and Border Protection (CBP) often finds a way out of these obligations. The federal government has waived numerous environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act, to expedite construction. These waivers allow for the circumvention of critical environmental impact assessments and public input processes, leaving the potential ecological consequences unchecked.

As you can probably imagine, ignoring the rules because there’s a claimed risk to national security has been controversial. Petitions, lawsuits, attempts to limit exceptions to environmental rules in Congress, and a lot of ink (including here at CleanTechnica) spilled trying to raise public awareness hasn’t gotten us very far. Nobody wants to be seen selling national interests out for the environment, even if the environment is itself at such a risk.

Sadly, this has led many environmental activists to despair. When half the country thinks the environmental issues are an attempt to leave the southern border open and the other half gets tired of fighting a repeat losing battle, expectations for change are low.

But, a recent news item out of Arizona shows that victories against the border wall are still possible. While getting things opened up better for animals and water is still going to be a long fight, CBP recently decided it would do the right thing about light pollution.

What’s Light Pollution? How Does A Wall Create It?

In a nutshell, light pollution is any unneeded light that causes problems at night. It is caused by various sources, such as streetlights, building exterior and interior lighting, advertising, industrial lighting, and illuminated sporting venues. Light pollution has several adverse effects on the environment, human health, wildlife, and our ability to observe and appreciate the night sky.

It comes in several forms. One we’ve all probably seen at some point is light trespassing, or unwelcome light that comes onto your property from elsewhere (often an annoying neighbor). There’s also glare (light that blinds people), and skyglow, the scattering of light into the atmosphere that blocks the view of the night sky in cities.

The border wall itself isn’t a source of unwanted light, but lights installed on and near the wall are often not very well thought out. In this case, the federal government is installing well over 1,000 stadium lights along the fence to discourage illegal crossings and make enforcement against them easier.

Fixing the Issue Doesn’t Require Abandoning Border Security

It’s important to note that the battle against light pollution doesn’t require turning the United States into North Korea. The idea isn’t to plunge the night into darkness as much as to make wiser use of lighting. It really is possible to solve light pollution problems without turning off all of the lights.

There are several ways that lights can be made less polluting. The obvious one is to just turn the brightness down instead of off, or to switch to a “warmer” color that’s less likely to drown out the stars and confuse animals. Aiming lights downward and limiting how much light shines into the sky is another important method. It’s also good to automatically turn the lights off when they’re not needed, using things like timers and motion detectors.

So, it makes very little sense to frame this debate as one of border security versus the environment. Instead, the key is to meet important human needs and goals while minimizing the harms done.

CBP Says It Is Going To Do The Right Thing This Time

People who care about light pollution knew that the federal government could do what it is tasked with doing at the border without destroying the night. But, given the past history of CBP just waving the magic “national security” wand to get environmental protections waived, few were optimistic that CBP would try to do right by the night.

Fortunately, activists were pleasantly surprised to hear that the agency was going to go through the whole environmental process before it switches on any of the stadium bulbs.

In a statement shared by Arizona Luminaria, the agency said it would “conduct a review of environmental impacts pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to install new lights where none exist and/or power on lights where lighting infrastructure had been installed. Through the NEPA process, CBP will evaluate the potential for environmental impacts and obtain feedback from the public and other stakeholders on lighting.”

While this doesn’t solve every environmental issue related to the wall (or even come close to doing so), activists are cautiously optimistic about the lights. A thorough review should show what dark sky fans knew all along: that stadium lights have no place in the wild places between Arizona and Sonora. Nobody’s trying to say that there shouldn’t be any lights at all, but CBP seems like it is at least open to the idea of mitigating the impacts of the light it needs.

But, as usual, this is something we’ll need to keep an eye on.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

 
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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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