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Border agency pauses plan for high-intensity lighting in West, South Texas amid legal fight over border funding

A map of the proposed border barrier lighting in the El Paso area.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
A map of the proposed border barrier lighting in the El Paso area.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection has paused a plan to install high-intensity lighting on the Rio Grande in West and South Texas, citing a federal court ruling in March that blocked the Biden administration’s plans to redirect border wall funding to other initiatives.

As the Texas Tribune has reported, a U.S. district judge issued a temporary injunction in a Texas-led lawsuit on March 13, halting the administration’s plan to redirect $1.4 billion that Congress had allocated for things like border walls and fencing in 2020 and 2021.

The ruling came just a few days after CBP announced the border lighting proposal for El Paso and Starr counties and said it would take public comments on the plan through late April.

Roger Maier, a spokesperson for the agency, confirmed that the plan has since been paused, as the lighting would have been installed using some of the redirected border funding.

“The scoping and completion of the [environmental assessment], as well as the subsequent installation of lighting by CBP, has been placed on hold,” he said.

Maier did not say when exactly the proposal was paused — a move the agency did not publicize. Multiple news outlets continued to publish stories about the public comment period weeks after the March 13 court order.

The initial proposal called for the construction of just over 25 miles of new “operational lighting” on the Texas-Mexico border and would also involve CBP turning on and maintaining about 20 miles of previously installed lighting. The lighting system would consist of LED lights, flood lights, poles and other infrastructure like electrical boxes and concrete housing for cables, according to CBP.

Environmental advocates have raised concerns about the proposal, saying such “stadium lighting” can harm wildlife habitat. The McDonald Observatory in West Texas has also expressed concern about the project’s impact on astronomical research and dark sky-based tourism in the region. Dark skies preservation efforts have made strides in recent years, particularly with the establishment of the “Greater Big Bend Dark Sky Reserve” in 2022.

“Should Customs and Border Protection pursue the border lighting initiative again in the future, the observatory is happy to partner on lighting plan recommendations that help reduce the negative impacts of such a project,” the observatory said in a statement.

In an April letter to CBP about the proposal, the observatory’s director Taft Armandroff, along with a University of Texas dean, asked the agency to “explore alternatives to lighting wherever possible” and warned that light pollution from the El Paso area was already increasing to a degree that “if left unchecked, could grow to threaten astronomical research and astro-tourism.”

“A naturally dark, star-filled night sky is necessary for fruitful inquiries into the nature of the universe,” Armandroff and David Vanden Bout, head of the university’s College of Natural Sciences, wrote in the letter. “The lighting proposed along the international border in El Paso County will contribute significantly to the observed skyglow due to the large quantity, high intensity, and particular spectral composition of light sources.”

The observatory’s representatives have asked CBP to explore “timing and dimming strategies” to reduce the overall glow of the proposed border lighting and to release more details on the “precise information of the intensity” of the lighting, among other measures.

The environmental group Center for Biological Diversity has criticized the Texas border lighting initiative and another before it: more than 60 miles of high-powered lighting that have already been installed - though not used - in Arizona.

Still, Laiken Jordahl, an advocate with the group, said the court order that prompted the pause of the Texas project is “certainly not something to celebrate.”

“It’s important to note that the court order that is causing the pause to this project is a terrible one, and one that may be clarified soon by the judge to allow more wall building activities, and perhaps lighting too,” he said. “Everything we’ve seen from CBP suggests that they’ll continue to build destructive walls and blast harmful lighting into some of the border region’s wildest places as soon as they get the chance.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.