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Opponents of Border Coal Mine Face Final Test

UPDATED: Opponents of a proposed open pit coal mine on the border will see this week if their last chance at stopping the venture has legs. Representatives for the project say fears have been overblown.

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

Updated, Feb. 25, 1:20 p.m.:

Following a three-hour hearing in the 126th Civil District Court on Tuesday, Judge Darlene Byrne said she would render a decision on the permit by the end of March, said George Baxter, vice president of the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association.

Baxter said that Byrne acknowledged reviewing the briefs filed over the past few months and that she appeared “very interested in the case.”

Rudy Rodriguez, a spokesman for Dos Republicas, said there was little discussion about the mine itself but more about the process by which the permit was obtained. He reiterated that opponents of the coal mine presented “nothing that was concrete.”

Original story: 

EAGLE PASS — More people in Maverick County have signed a petition opposing an open pit coal mine here than cast ballots in the 2010 Texas gubernatorial election.

But despite the 8,300 signatures against Dos Republicas' mining project, the venture will move forward unless opponents prevail in a hearing that begins Tuesday in an Austin state district court, which has jurisdiction over the case because it involves a challenge to a state agency.

Dos Republicas, which is owned by Mexican mining companies and partners in Texas with the Plano-based North American Coal Corporation and its subsidiary Camino Real Fuels, was granted a permit by the three-member Texas Railroad Commission in January 2013. It seeks to mine about 6,300 acres in Maverick County in order to extract low-grade coal for use in Mexico.

The court will decide whether to reverse that decision and remand the issue back to the commission for reconsideration.

Opponents of the project, including the Eagle Pass City Council, the Maverick County Commissioners Court, school and hospital districts, and the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association, worry the mining will lead to myriad problems. They fear air pollution, wastewater discharge into a tributary that flows into the Rio Grande River — the region's main source of  water — and the possibility that blasting could create sinkholes near areas where Maverick County residents have lived for generations.

“The DRCP mine will discharge all its wastewater into Elm Creek, [which] then flows into the Rio Grande, only two miles upriver of the city of Eagle Pass intake,” George Baxter, vice president of the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association, wrote in a synopsis of the project.

Rudy Rodriguez, a spokesman for Dos Republicas, said those concerns are overblown, that the company will continue to abide by current state and federal regulations, and that the project would be a boon to the local economy and create jobs.

He also expressed confidence that Dos Republicas would prevail again. 

"We're moving forward with the coal mine," he said, adding that all the objections raised by the opposition have involved hypothetical situations. "They never came up with anything concrete."

On Sunday, Ramon Rodriguez — no relation to Rudy Rodriguez — was one of several residents who attended the weekly “pulga,” or swap meet, off Highway 277. Standing on the banks of a small river on Maverick County’s Elm Creek, where fishing poles lined the tiny banks of the tributary, Ramon Rodriguez said the mine would definitely alter the town’s way of life.

In 1980, he moved to Eagle Pass from across the border in Piedras Negras, or "Black Rocks," a Mexican city named for its coal deposits where Dos Republicas' parent company already operates a controversial mine. He has grave concerns that the company’s connections to Mexico, where the industry faces fewer regulations and less oversight, would result in substandard practices in Eagle Pass.

“I imagine that they are going to have explosions and, after that, contamination,” he said in Spanish. “They will operate the same way.”

Rudy Rodriguez, the Dos Republicas spokesman, pushed back against residents’ efforts to link Dos Republicas to the Mexican company that operates across the Rio Grande. He said it is merely an investor with a permit, and won't oversee mining operations. 

He also said he has no direct evidence of locals' other suspicion — that drug cartels have links to Mexican coal mines. The former governor of Coahuila, the Mexican state that includes Piedras Negras, alleged as much of the Zetas after his son was murdered in a revenge plot. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2012 that federal authorities were investigating those connections.

"There is no truth to that with our organization whatsoever," he said.

Baxter has scoffed at the company's job growth claims. He said that in press reports he has read, the number of positions promised by the company has decreased from more than 150 to about 40.

But what he fears most is that Dos Republicas' Eagle Pass endeavor may only be the tip of the iceberg. The Army Corps of Engineers recently took written public comments on the Eagle Pass mining plan at a meeting in Uvalde, about 65 miles away from the proposed mine site. Baxter said he learned during that public comment period that Dos Republicas wants to eventually expand its permit area to 25,000 acres, about 40 square miles. Dos Republicas' Rudy Rodriguez said it was something the company was thinking about. 

While history is not on the locals' side, Baxter said he was taking this race one hurdle at a time. He acknowledged that even if the decision is remanded back to the Railroad Commission, the outcome could be the same. 

“We’ll take it one step at a time, I guess,” he said. “We’re just moving down the road.”

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