After a two-week standoff between protesters and construction crews building a border wall made of shipping containers, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Arizona, accusing it of trespassing on federal land.
The lawsuit asks for “immediate injuctive relief prohibiting” the state from continuing work on the wall, which federal officials say is being built on federal land without the required permits or authority.
“Arizona has unlawfully and without authority failed to remove the shipping containers from lands owned by the United States or over which the United States holds easements, thereby damaging the United States,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit follows months of tension between outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey’s office and federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, both of which oversee public land on which the barrier is being built.
In August, Ducey issued an executive order directing the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs to fill gaps in the existing border wall in Yuma County using shipping containers.
The federal government has said the land is public and called the project “unlawful.”
In October, Ducey sued federal officials who head agencies overseeing public land, including the Forest Service and the Agriculture Department. The federal government asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.
The project has since expanded to Cochise County, where local residents and environmentalists have withstood snow and freezing temperatures to hold protests.
On Tuesday, Ducey’s office sent a letter to the Justice Department, saying Arizona “stands ready to cooperate with the federal government on construction of a border wall and always has been.” The letter indicated work on the project has been paused.
“From our perspective, the containers were always intended to be a temporary solution to an ongoing problem and that’s the problem of an unsecure border,” said C.J. Karamargin, Ducey’s spokesman.
“This should be the beginning of the end of Doug Ducey’s lawless assault on protected national forestlands and endangered wildlife,” Russ McSpadden, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an emailed statement. “Ducey is spending his last days in office wasting millions of taxpayer dollars dumping toxic railcars on some of the most beautiful, biodiverse lands in Arizona. We’re hopeful a judge will quickly stop this heartless, reckless PR stunt in its tracks.”
Also Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue Ducey’s office over the wall because of ecological concerns.
The center says the wall violated the Clean Water Act in the Coronado National Forest, near where its construction is taking place.
Dr. Robin Silver with the Center for Biological Diversity said the intent to sue is necessary because the federal complaint against Ducey’s office does not go far enough in asking for the construction to immediately stop. Important waterways are being damaged or altered by the placement of shipping containers on land that serves as important habitats and crossings, including for endangered species, he said.
“We don’t trust the feds,” he said. “Under the Clean Water Act, they have created a dam with those shipping containers and it just looks like a junkyard now.”
Demonstrators have said they will not leave their protest site until the containers are removed, even if it means camping in tents in below-freezing temperatures through the upcoming holidays.