Not in my backyard

Residents along the border want more say in placement of SBInet towers

The new 98-foot tower installed in the first section of the Homeland Security Department's SBInet surveillance system is not on the border: It is 11 miles north, just outside Arivaca, Ariz.

Residents of the small high-desert community ? Arivaca is not an incorporated town ? demanded at a May 15 meeting with DHS and Boeing Co. to know why they were asked to host the tower. Mary Scott, who attended the meeting, said they were told it was because mountains to the south hinder surveillance, and the tower's closer proximity to roads in Arivaca will make it easier to maintain.

"We here in Arivaca feel like we are on the front line of an SBInet invasion," resident Richard Conway said.

Arivaca is one of the first communities in which residents are protesting the border system, but it is not likely to be the only one. The aggressive schedule to build the surveillance system on the southern U.S. border is beginning to cause friction with homeowners in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

On June 15, the House approved a fiscal 2008 spending bill for the department that includes funding for SBInet and border fencing. It also requires community input on the placement of the SBInet system and consultations with other federal agencies regarding possible environmental and wildlife impacts. Reconciliation with the Senate version is pending.

But Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee, warned that the consultations could slow installation of the system.

"Added together, they are a series of obstacles that can potentially impede installation of critical border security systems essential to our homeland security," he said in a news release. "I fear that securing the border will be greatly deterred."

And President Bush, in a statement of administration policy released June 12, opposed the conditions placed on SBInet and defended DHS' "extensive outreach and coordination with state and local officials and residents along the border."

But several residents of Arivaca dispute that assertion. The initial environmental impact assessment for the project arrived at the local library on April 14, and because the library was closed for the following two days, they contend town residents had only three days ? until Wednesday, April 18 ? to review the document.

"Since the library would be closed two out of those five days, 1,500 people in Arivaca would be given three days to examine a 50-page document regarding installations that could greatly impact our lives," wrote C Hues on the community blog.

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), an Appropriations Committee member who authored the language requiring additional community consultations for SBInet, said communities must be part of the conversation with DHS and Boeing on placement of the towers for SBInet, but he is not setting any specific time frame for those consultations, said his spokeswoman, Angela Barranco.

"We just want to formalize the idea that there has to be local input," Barranco said. "There is a lot of concern at the local level."

Arivaca residents continue to criticize the tower placement despite the explanations offered. They are concerned about being under 24-hour surveillance, the disruption of recreation and other activities held near the tower, bright lights shining in the night sky, and the possibility of loud alarm blasts from the towers scaring horses on trail rides.

SBInet consists of cameras, sensors and communications systems strung on towers along the border. Chicago-based Boeing won the contract for SBInet along with the task order for the first 28-mile section in September 2006. It expects to receive additional task orders for that project, which is anticipated to cost about $8 billion through 2011.

On June 13, the first nine towers were scheduled to go live in that 28-mile section, dubbed Project 28.

"We are completely baffled why Boeing chose the preferred site for our tower," Conway said. "No answer has been offered to the question, 'Why here?'"

The towers can be moved, and at the end of the Project 28 trial DHS will decide whether to keep the Arivaca tower in place or relocate it. "Arivaca is determined to prove the unsuitability of our tower site since our reasoned appeals to move the site before deploying were ignored," he said.

Conway, a retired geologist, also predicts that the Arivaca tower will not be able to detect many intruders in the region because they stay below ground level in large canyons. "Illegal entrants and smugglers use the excellent cover of the washes and can remain below the radar and difficult to detect for long distances," he said.

Boeing officials referred all requests for comment to DHS, and department officials declined to respond.

"June 13, 2007, marks an important date for the SBInet program and for the Department of Homeland Security as a whole," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, at a congressional hearing June 7. "On that date, Project 28 is scheduled to be fully operational, and we will begin to learn whether this $20 million initial investment is going to be a success."

Each of the towers has radar, infrared cameras and other sensors, and data-processing and communications equipment to distribute information to control centers, mobile units, agent vehicles and other law enforcement employees. The information creates a near-real-time view of activity in the vicinity of the towers, giving border patrol agents the locations of suspected intrusions, department employees, vehicles and other assets.

The SBInet system will eventually stretch across the United States' southern and northern land borders to detect intruders and coordinate intervention. As one of DHS' largest programs, the two-border system has an estimated value of as much as $30 billion.

Staff writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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