EAGLE PASS — George Baxter knows how to fight. The East Coast native dodged bullets while serving in Vietnam, then, as a U.S. Border Patrol agent, he guarded a vast swath of rough terrain just across from Mexico.
But Baxter may be gearing up for his toughest battle yet, as he and a coalition of residents in his adopted town of Eagle Pass — across the border from the Mexican city of Piedras Negras — fight a coal partnership they say is intent on destroying their peaceful way of life.
The Dos Republicas Coal Partnership, which is owned by Mexican mining companies, has applied to renew a permit that would let its American partners mine about 6,300 acres of land in the border town. A current permit already allows for mining, but officials said that work has not started because of several attempts to modify the permit to meet specifications, as well as supply-and-demand issues affecting potential customers.
Residents worry that the mining will harm the environment and they will lose land due to property damage. They are also concerned about having a Mexican company that is held to lower standards operate in Texas. Adding salt to their wounds is the fact that the coal, considered too low quality to burn in the U.S., will be shipped to Mexico.
A spokesman for Dos Republicas, which partners with North American Coal Corporation and subsidiary Camino Real Fuels, both based in Plano, said criticism of the partnership is unwarranted and the result of a misunderstanding.
For now, the opposition is united. The Eagle Pass City Council and Maverick County Commissioners Court have approved resolutions opposing the project. The school and hospital districts, and the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, are also protesting the project.
“Coal that generates electric power has got to come from somewhere,” Baxter said at a recent town hall meeting. “But the fact that we are going to suffer all the consequences and all the power goes to Mexico is really the sticking point in my mind.”
The permit application has set up the latest chapter in what the residents call a David-versus-Goliath battle against a corporation with deep pockets — deep enough to hire lawyers who could persuade the Texas Railroad Commission’s three members to grant the permit. That would pave the way for the company to mine as many as 2.8 million tons of coal annually.
Rudy Rodriguez, a partner with Rodriguez Industries and Operations, which handles public relations for Dos Republicas, said the firm’s role in the proposed operation is overblown.
The belief that “a Mexican company is operating here is not the case,” he said. “They are merely investors owning a permit.”
Rodriguez said that the onus to comply with state and federal regulations, which he said are vastly different from Mexican policies, is on the American companies, which would manage the daily mining operations.
“The companies meet the regulations in Mexico and in the United States,” he said. “The company, North American Coal, that comes over to operate this can’t have a black eye on this permit because it impacts their whole operation in the United States.”
But people in Eagle Pass say that even if the regulations are met, the residents are in danger of being poisoned. They fear that the transport of low-quality coal will release particles into the air that will affect their breathing, and that discharge from mining operations will run off into the creek that feeds into the Rio Grande, the city’s main water source. The blasting, which officials with the coal companies said is possible if needed, could disrupt the already fragile terrain that is vulnerable to sinkholes, a byproduct of mining in the area over the last century.
“What we want is for our voices to be heard because we feel like we are being discriminated against,” said Martha Baxter, Geroge Baxter’s wife. “Is it because we’re a poor community and don’t have a lot of money and fancy lawyers?”
Rodriguez said that what the residents of Eagle Pass don’t understand is that there is already coal moving through the city. Rail traffic that moves coal from sites farther north already passes through.
“They are going to get it, whether it’s from up north or right there,” he said. “So right now you have no jobs and you are still having all that coal driven through that community.”
The Railroad Commission will ultimately decide whether to renew the company’s permit. At a recent hearing in Austin, both sides began the painstaking process of pleading their cases to the hearing examiner, Marcy Spraggins, who will forward her recommendation to the commissioners.
The hearing lasted a week, often stalling on minuscule details concerning endangered species, water runoff and vegetation. The process was mentally draining for all parties, including Spraggins.
“I am perfectly capable of ending the proceeding because counsel are not acting appropriately,” she said to both sides. “You are not supposed to argue with the examiner, period. I am getting tired of hearing it.”
The hearing will resume again over the next two months, and then the examiner will have 60 to 90 days to make a recommendation to the commission. Spraggins agreed to allow videoconferencing to obtain statements from the border residents who could not travel to Austin, which was small consolation after they received a notice in October saying that “all requests/motions to hold the hearing on the merits in Eagle Pass are denied.”
During the hearing, mining officials testified that the expansion would create about 40 office positions and a workforce of between 100 and 200 people. Hourly wages for mine workers could be as much as $24, they said.
But opponents say that the job creation angle is just a selling point to ensure that anyone who opposes the mine publicly can be labeled as opposing more opportunities for Eagle Pass.
“What everybody’s fear or suspicion is, is that once the permit’s granted, that the management of Camino Real fuels will be taken over by the direct management from Mexico,” George Baxter said. He added that he thinks it includes bringing in workers from Mexico instead of hiring local residents.
Baxter said he has collected more than 6,000 signatures on petitions from Maverick County residents who want Dos Republicas and its partners to leave town.
But for E.K. Taylor, 83, who has lived in Eagle Pass all his life, including serving 38 years as a U.S. Customs agent, all of the fighting is too much to take. He is selling the house he lived in with his wife for 38 years.
“If it wasn’t for that coal company, I would have stayed here,” he said. “But there’s no way I would do business with them.”