NOGALES, Ariz. – U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Arizona are defending the blasting of a mountain considered sacred by a Native American tribe to make way for border wall construction, saying their survey identified “no biological, cultural or historical sites” in the area.
That stance puts them at odds with the Tohono O’Odham Nation, a sovereign tribe in southwestern Arizona whose ancestors lived where the border wall is under construction and who have identified the mountain as a having significant cultural and historical value.
Last week, construction crews began blowing up parts of Monument Hill, west of the Lukeville port of entry on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The blasting will allow them to replace the existing wire mesh or vehicle barriers with new 30-foot bollards.
CBP has said the blasting is controlled and targeted, and that it will continue for the rest of February.
That activity has drawn condemnation from environmental groups, as well as O’Odham leaders, who had called on CBP to freeze construction activity on Monument Hill and several other key O’Odham archaeological sites inside Organ Pipe.
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Amid growing criticism and nationwide attention to the blasting, Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday released a statement offering additional details about the work on Monument Hill.
The border agency said that, as is customary, it conducted surveys in the parts of Pima and Cochise counties slated for the construction of 30-foot bollard fencing. The surveys sought to identify any biological, cultural or natural-resources concerns.
“Based on the environmental surveys and stakeholder coordination completed, no biological, cultural or historical sites were identified within the project area, which consists of the 60-foot wide swath of land that extends from the international border north and is known as the Roosevelt Reservation,” the statement said.
CBP said the blasting was taking place within a five-foot stretch of the Hill right next to the border “for the purpose of loosening rock in order to allow for the construction of a footer for the new border wall.”
The agency also said its environmental monitor has been in attendance to make sure that the work is halted in the event any “unidentified culturally sensitive artifacts” are found during construction.
CBP’s survey results finding no cultural or historic sites near construction areas appear to contradict the Tohono O’Odham claims. The tribe has identified several archaeological and cultural sites within or near the Roosevelt Reservation along Organ Pipe and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
Monument Hill was used as a ceremonial site and human remains have been recovered from the mountain, according to the tribe’s historic preservation officer.
Farther west, Quitobaquito Springs has archaeological and environmental significance because it is one of a few natural sources of water for dozens of miles. That made the Springs crucial, not just for desert wildlife, but for the O’Odham.
The Springs are not located within the 60-foot Roosevelt Reservation, but the surrounding area is littered with pottery, shells and other remnants of O’Odham life, according to the tribe.
During a visit in mid-January, Ned Norris Jr., the chairman for the Tohono O’Odham Nation, said the federal government has largely “ignored” their concerns. But he remains hopeful that their close working relationship with local border officials would change things.
“This wall is desecrating and encroaching and destroying significant archaeological issues that are concerning to us,” Norris said. “We’ve got to have a much quicker response to the questions that we’re raising.”
On Thursday, the chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector released a 24-second clip showing some of the detonations on Monument Hill. Chief Roy Villareal said these were impacting “areas previously disturbed by the last iteration of fencing.”
Additional video taken on Monday by environmental advocates appeared to show more detonations on parts of the hill.
Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity has been documenting border wall construction activity in southern Arizona. He said each time he returns to the site near Monument Hill, he has noticed an increased flattening of the area where crews plan on building the 30-foot bollards.
He disputed CBP’s assertion that its surveys had found no cultural or archaeological sites.
The Homeland Security Department “is not an authority on archaeological or cultural issues. They have waived every relevant law that protects burial grounds, archaeological sites and sacred areas,” he said. “So them saying that they’re not inflicting any damage, when they haven’t even consulted with the tribe, is meaningless.”
Follow Rafael Carranza on Twitter: @RafaelCarranza.