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Border Coal Mine Plan Advances; Opponents Consider Their Options

A decision by the Texas Railroad Commission has paved the way for an open-pit coal mine to begin operating on the Texas-Mexico border. Opponents of the plan are weighing their options, which include making a request for another hearing.

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With a plan for an open pit coal mine on the Texas-Mexico border one step closer to being in operation, opponents looking to block the mine are left hoping to win a possible court injunction or an unlikely reversal by the Texas Railroad Commission.

The three-member commission voted 2-1 last week to approve a permit modification request submitted by Dos Republicas, which seeks to mine about 6,300 acres in Eagle Pass. Dos Republicas, which is owned by Mexican mining companies, partners with North American Coal Corporation and subsidiary Camino Real Fuels, both based in Plano. Commissioner Christi Craddick and Chairman Barry Smitherman voted in favor of the request, and Commissioner David Porter voted against it.

The commission’s approval paves the way for Dos Republicas to transport the low-quality coal to the Mexican state of Coahuila. Dos Republicas hasn't said when it would start mining the land, whose coal is too low-grade for use in the U.S., but Mexican law allows for its use in power plants there.

Opponents of the plan, which include the Eagle Pass City Council, the Maverick County Commissioners Court and the school and hospital districts, are now left to determine what their options are and how to move forward. They oppose the proposal because they say myriad environmental hazards will be the byproduct of the permit expansion.

During weeks of testimony before a Railroad Commission hearing examiner that began last year, opponents of the plan alleged that the coal mining would release particles into the air that would affect their breathing. The discharge from mining operations would run off into the creek that feeds into the Rio Grande, they added, and poison the city’s main water source.

Additional blasting, they have argued, could disrupt the already fragile terrain that is vulnerable to sinkholes, a byproduct of mining in the area over the last century.

Officials with the mine, however, have said that they will abide by current environmental and safety regulations, and point to the fact that coal is already being transported through the community from locations farther north without causing the damage opponents of the plan fear.

Opponents can file a motion for a another hearing with the commission and to also seek judicial review of the commission’s final order in Travis County District Court, said Ramona Nye, an official in the Railroad Commission's media affairs office.

George Baxter, the vice president of the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association, said opponents of the plan would reconvene soon to debate future options — which may include seeking an injunction to stop the project.

“I think our next move is that we have to file a motion for reconsideration with the commission, but of course that’s strictly a formality — I don’t think that’s going to change [the outcome], but I think that we have to do that to preserve our appeal rights,” he said.  

Baxter said that though last week's outcome was expected, he thought that because most of the area’s elected officials — including Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantu and Maverick County Judge David Saucedo — opposed the mine, the commissioners could have been swayed.

“They delivered what I thought was a pretty effective presentation and expressed the opposition of the city and the county against it,” he said. “The fact that [State] Senator [Carlos] Uresti and Rep. [Alfonso "Poncho"] Nevárez sent letters backing us up and explicitly asking the commissioners to deny the permit, I thought that would carry some weight with the commission, but apparently it didn’t carry enough.”

In his letter, Uresti wrote that the “mined coal would be used in high emission power plants just across the U.S. border, and those emissions have been shown to degrade air quality in areas such as Big Bend National Park.”

Mining officials have a different take.

“As Commissioner [Smitherman] said, everything they said is hypothetical,” said Rudy Rodriguez, of Rodriguez Industries and Operations, which handles public relations for Dos Republicas. “We’re moving forward with the permit and those pieces. We filed an application and abided by all of Texas’ rules and regulations.”

Dos Republicas is beginning its outreach to let residents know how the company plans to move forward, Rodriguez said.

"We’re letting them know the timelines and when everything is going to be mined — and try to make it as positive for the community as we can, from a technology standpoint, from a business standpoint, from a sales tax standpoint, from a technology standpoint,” he said. “It’s over, now we look at all the positive aspects."

Last year, officials testified that the project would create about 40 office positions and a workforce of as many as 200 people, with wages for mine workers potentially reaching as much as $24.

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