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Decision Nears on Coal Project in Border Town

Plans for a coal mine in Eagle Pass took a step forward last month and could get final approval in January. But opponents of the proposal, who say the project raises serious health concerns, say they haven't given up the fight.

The Rio Grande and a towering border fence separate Eagle Pass, Texas from Piedras Negras, Mexico, Saturday, February 4, 2012.

Opponents of a proposed coal mine in Eagle Pass, near Texas’ border with Mexico, are staring at the possibility that their yearslong goal of stopping the project will be all for naught.

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 Eagle Pass. Dos Republicas partners with the North American Coal Corporation and subsidiary Camino Real Fuels, both based in Plano.

Following several weeks of hearings this year, a hearing examiner on Nov. 15 recommended that the permit be approved. But the Railroad Commission's three-member panel has the ultimate say in whether the plan moves forward. Both sides had until Monday to file exceptions to the recommendations and any subsequent responses to those exceptions. A final decision is expected in January.

Critics of the plan say the project raises serious health concerns for people in Maverick County. But representatives for the partnership say that such concerns are based on inaccurate information and that the mine will result in hundreds of additional jobs for the area, one of the poorest in Texas.

George Baxter, the vice president of the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association, who has led opposition to the proposed mine, said he and his supporters aren’t giving up.

“Basically, we are going to keep fighting it in every way that’s available to us, and hopefully we’ll get a favorable decision,” he said. 

If approved, the partnership would mine about 2.8 million tons of low-grade coal annually from the Eagle Pass site. But the coal would be bound for Piedras Negras, Coahuila, across the Rio Grande because its quality is too low for domestic use.

Baxter said that is a clear sign that the coal should not be mined at all. Particles could pollute the air during transport, water reservoirs could be hurt by runoff, and several endangered species, including ocelots and jaguarundis, could be displaced, he said. The blasting could also further damage land that is already fragile as a result of mining projects from several decades ago.

Rudy Rodriguez, a partner with Rodriguez Industries and Operations, which handles public relations for the coal company, anticipates a green light for the project and said the concerns raised were unwarranted.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the hearings examiner stated that a lot of information that was cited was hypothetical and not factual,” he said. “We feel good moving forward that the application meets all the technical requirements.” Rodriguez said that Dos Republicas has customers lined up to purchase the coal and that the company is moving forward with a related project to build a two-way rail line to transport the coal. Construction of the line is already under way on the proposed site.

A current permit already allows for mining, but officials said that work had not started because of several attempts to modify the permit to meet specifications, as well as previous supply-and-demand issues affecting potential customers.

Adding to the opponents’ unease about the project is the recent news from Mexico, where Humberto Moreira, a former governor of Coahuila, told Mexican news outlets that the government should investigate organized crime and its relationship to the coal industry in the border state.

Moreira’s son was killed this year in what authorities say was a hit ordered by Zetas leader Miguel Treviño Morales, the criminal mastermind now believed to be in charge of the ruthless cartel. Moreira said the former Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, who was believed to be killed in an October shootout with authorities, had a direct connection to Mexican coalmines.

Rodriguez said he was unaware of any allegations that the Mexican mine companies had ties to criminal elements and he has yet to hear of any official complaint or related statements on either side of the border.

Moreira did not name any particular coal company, but the speculation has added to the concerns of Eagle Pass residents also worried about having a Mexican company operate in Texas due to lower oversight and less stringent safety requirements the Mexican firms abide by. Rodriguez said during the hearings that those concerns are unfounded. The Mexicans are only investors owning the permit but will not oversee the mine’s daily operations.

The recommendation is the latest setback for Baxter and his team. In May, a major ally in the fight against the coal project, the Eagle Pass-based Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, officially withdrew its opposition. The withdrawal meant the coalition lost several expert witnesses and a major source of funding.

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