If members of the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association live by the adage that when it rains it pours, in their eyes the next set of thunderstorms could come in the form of rail cars loaded with low-grade coal running through the border county.
The group has spearheaded a fight against a company whose Mexican investors and American subsidiaries want to mine about 6,300 acres of land for low-quality coal within the county. That company is now seeking permission to build a rail line to transport the coal from Eagle Pass to Piedras Negras, Coahuila.
Critics, including local residents, say that dust from the coal and discharge from the planned mine would pollute the air and water systems, and that blasting at the mine could lead to property damage and loss.
The only reason for the rail line is to facilitate the mining operation, association president Jose Luis Rosales said in a letter opposing the rail project. “And since the mine poses such a threat to the heath and safety of the citizens of this community with absolutely no corresponding benefit, the [association] completely and totally opposes” the rail line, he said.
Officials with the Dos Republicas Coal Partnership — the company seeking to mine the land and which partners with North American Coal Corporation and subsidiary Camino Real Fuels, both based in Plano — have said that such criticism is unwarranted and that the project will be in compliance with all regulations. And despite the criticism, it is planning to move ahead.
Eagle Pass Railroad, LLC, which is owned by the same investors as Dos Republicas, recently asked the federal Surface Transportation Board for permission to build the line, which would make two daily trips. That line would facilitate the shipment of the coal if the Maverick County mine gets approved by the Texas Railroad Commission. That body is still months away from rendering a decision on the coal permit. Monday marked the beginning of yet another week in which the opposition and mine owners will debate the permit in front of a hearing examiner, who will submit a recommendation to the commission. The two sides debated the issue over a week last month. An additional week — if needed — is scheduled next month. The recommendation will head to the three-member commission 60 to 90 days after the hearing.
In addition to the coal, the rail line would haul other raw materials south and could potentially haul beer north from the Cervecería Grupo Modelo brewery in Piedras Negras, according to the railroad company’s request.
Company officials say the process to build a rail line, specifically one with an international destination, is costly and time-consuming. Beginning the effort before the coal is mined is merely common sense, they argue. They also argue that present-day traffic congestion caused by frequent stops on current rail lines could be alleviated with an additional route.
“Sometimes the rails just completely stop and you have to go around to the bridge or drive to one side of town to get across,” said Rudy Rodriguez, a partner with Rodriguez Industries and Operations, which handles public relations for Dos Republicas.
Rodriguez said that people in the border town also forget there is already coal moving through the city on trains, regardless of what Dos Republicas wants to do in the future.
“Whether the mine was permitted or not, the coal is coming, whether it’s coming from there or from the north,” he said. “So this alleviates concern of the coal going through downtown.”
More than 6,000 Maverick County residents have signed a petition opposing the mine, and the Eagle Pass City Council and Maverick County Commissioners Court have approved resolutions opposing the project.
George Baxter, who heads a residents’ coalition in Eagle Pass that is against the mine, says the opposition to the rail line is simple.
“It enables the mine," he said. "Regardless of which way the coal goes, we’re opposed to the mine and the railroad should facilitate that."
He also claims the argument that coal already moves through the town is shortsighted.
“Wherever it’s coming from, that coal has already been on the train for 1,000 miles,” he said. “Whatever is going to blow off has already blown off,” he added, referring to coal dust he and others say will be an environmental hazard to the town.
“This [locally mined] stuff is going to be loaded on the cars and within a couple miles, be passing through the city and within other populated areas, depending on which route they take.”
The proposed rail routes are also a point of contention. In a letter informing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department of the project’s intent, Victoria Rutson, the director of environmental analysis for the Surface Transportation Board, said the U.S. side of the tracks would traverse mainly rangeland and agricultural land and run about four to eight miles, depending on which route was used. In a letter opposing the project, however, Rosales noted that three of five proposed routes pass through homesteads of people that live off one of Maverick County’s roads. There are also concerns about leftover underground mine tunnels that have caused sinkholes and cave-ins due to the weight of trucks or other machinery alone.
Rosales says that, like the mine, the rail project would also harm the city’s water supply.
“Regardless of which corridor is selected, construction of the new rail bridge across the Rio Grande would take place upriver of the city water intake, creating more potential for pollution,” Rosales wrote. “The three existing international bridges in Eagle Pass are downriver of the water intake.”
The city of Eagle Pass has also asked the Surface Transportation Board to consider various issues. Eddie Morales, an attorney representing the city in its fight against the coal permit, says those range from environmental issues, to what effects the rail line will have on a water line downstream from the proposed sites and where those proposed sites were.
“It’s not so much a letter of opposition but [instead] one pointing out all the issues that the city has. It’s an extensive list,” he said. “We raised these issues so we could get more clarification and we could inform the public.”