Work on "virtual fences" planned for Arizona's stretch of U.S.-Mexican border has been brought to a halt.
The Interior Department has not granted the Homeland Security Department permission to use the land for constructing the surveillance towers that form the backbone of the virtual fences, said Barry Morrissey, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C.
Without authorization to use the land, no work could begin, which prompted agency officials to instruct the lead contractor on the project, Boeing Co., to suspend activities until further notice, Morrissey said.
No date has been set to resume work.
The suspension of work has forced at least one subcontractor, EOD Technology, to lay off 40 security guards who had been hired and trained, EOD spokesman Bill Pearse said. The company, based in Lenoir City, Tenn., with a small office in Tucson, had plans to hire a total of 100 security guards for the project, Pearse said. The guards were protecting Boeing personnel who were constructing equipment for the virtual fence as part of the SBInet project, he said.
"If Boeing doesn't have a project, we don't have a project either," Pearse said.
The first project, dubbed Tucson West, was set to begin on July 15.
It called for the construction of 45 surveillance towers and the upgrade of 12 existing ones to create a virtual fence targeting 81 miles of Arizona's border between Sasabe and a point south of Sierra Vista.
The second project, called Ajo-1, was going to come on its heels with a grid of 11 towers in southwestern Arizona, including seven on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Boeing told EOD Technology officials that the suspension of work could last until Jan. 1, 2009, Pearse said. He said they are "mildly optimistic" that the project will resume.
"Boeing was very clear that that's not a commitment. That's just an estimate," he said about the Jan. 1 date.
Government officials told Boeing officials to suspend activities until further notice but didn't give them a date on which to start again, said Deborah Bosick, Boeing SBInet coordinator.
The decision to suspend work stems from the Interior Department's decision not to sign off on Homeland Security's proposed finding of no significant impact in the environmental assessment for the Tucson West project, Morrissey said.
"It's a real estate issue," Morrissey said. "It's a land-use issue that, unfortunately, is trickling down."
The surveillance towers are not covered by a waiver created in the 2005 Real ID Act, which allows Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to waive border projects' compliance with federal regulations, said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a group that works to protect endangered species.
Homeland Security is being forced to go through National Environmental Policy Act steps, which in this case require the approval of the Interior Department, Clark said. "If that wasn't the case, trust me, they wouldn't be doing this environmental assessment," he said.
Chertoff has invoked the waiver four times in the past three years to move forward with fence projects, including three times in Arizona.
This case demonstrates what should happen on every Homeland Security project, Clark said. "It's democracy in action, and it's our laws working as they should without unconstitutional waivers."
In September 2006, Boeing was awarded the prime contract for the Secure Border Initiative. The company led a $20.6million test project called Project 28 last year along the border flanking Sasabe, and it was delayed because of glitches and was plagued by problems, a Government Accountability Office report found.
Both Morrissey and Bosick, however, said the suspension of activities had nothing to do with the performance of Boeing or its subcontractors.
Boeing still has the contract, and Homeland Security remains committed to building virtual fences to complement the physical fences and agents on the ground, Morrissey said.
While they wait, Boeing will be conducting systems testing at an undisclosed site along the southwest border that will enable it to hit the ground running when it gets the call to continue, Bosick said.
Homeland Security will continue to work with the Interior Department to get permission, but it also will shift some focus to the ongoing construction of fences and vehicle barriers, Morrissey said.
The agency has until the end of the calendar year to construct the remaining 332 miles of primary fencing and vehicle barriers to meet the mandate of 670 miles of primary fencing and vehicle barriers established by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Through Aug. 13, the agency had completed 338 miles.
Without a definite date to resume work, EOD Technology is unsure how it will resume if it is called upon. The company was set to make between $3 million and $5 million during the six months, Pearse said.
The company will get paid for the preparatory work it has done since early July, but Pearse wasn't sure how much that would be.
Rehiring the workers whom the company laid off could be difficult, he said.
"We hope to get them back because, like I said, we were building a team," Pearse said.
"But I think the reality is that some of them will be able to, and have to, get other jobs, especially in the face of schedule uncertainty."