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Judge Throws a Wrench in Border Coal Project

For several years, residents in Maverick County have waged a war against a company that wants to mine low-grade coal on 6,300 acres of land in this impoverished borderland. A recent twist in the saga is giving them new hope.

If Dos Republicas is able to mine substandard coal in Maverick County, it will be carried by train from the site in rural Maverick County through the center of Eagle Pass, Texas - Saturday, February 4, 2012

For several years, residents in Maverick County have waged a war against a company that wants to mine low-grade coal on 6,300 acres of land in this impoverished borderland, citing fears of environmental and health problems. So far, they've lost their battles.

But a recent twist in the saga has given new hope to the opponents of 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.

In April, Maverick County Judge David Saucedo, who doubles as the county’s floodplain administrator, denied the mining company's floodplain development permit, which is needed because a part of the proposed site sits on a FEMA-designated flood zone. Saucedo did not return calls seeking comment on his denial. 

Dos Republicas filed suit in May, arguing that there was no reason for the denial. A state district judge is scheduled to hear the matter next week.

Dos Republicas spokesman Rudy Rodriguez said the company wasn’t told specifically why the permit was rejected, but that he was confident it would prevail, like it has done several times before. 

“They didn’t say, ‘This has to be altered.’ They just denied it," he said. “I’ve never seen one denied like this.”

The floodplain permit is just the latest hurdle in the long-standing battle between the company and a coalition of opponents that includes the Eagle Pass City Council, the Maverick County Commissioners Court, the local hospital districts, and the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association.

Fearing that mining would cause air pollution and that the mine’s wastewater discharge would flow into a river that feeds into the Rio Grande — the region's main source of water — coalition members and their attorneys testified in 2012 before the Railroad Commission of Texas and asked the regulatory agency to deny the permit. Following more than a week of testimony, the permit was granted in January 2013.

In February 2014, the coalition asked a state district judge to halt the permit and remand the case back to the Railroad Commission, but that plea was rejected. That case is being appealed. Rodriguez said he expects the court to rule in the company’s favor because the arguments against the permit are based on assumptions.

“When you boil down the facts and boil down policy and regulations [set forth] by the Railroad Commission, we win,” he said. “They present hypothetical ‘What if this,’ but not, ‘We have facts that something will happen.’”

In this latest floodplain challenge, however, the mine's opponents say they have indisputable facts. 

State Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, an attorney, will represent Maverick County during next week’s court proceedings. Nevárez, who has been a vocal opponent of the mine for years, said the area has flooded twice in the last 14 months. That means the opposition's concerns are valid, he said.

“Those two flooding events that are never supposed to happen have happened twice. That creek flows directly into the community,” he said.

Nevárez said he is representing Maverick County in his role as the county’s general counsel, a position he took in January.

“I had no idea this was going to fall into my lap, but I am glad it did,” he said. “If we don’t win, we’re going to figure out what we can do on appeal.”

If nothing else, this latest hurdle for Dos Republicas buys the mine’s opponents some time, said George Baxter, the vice president of the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association.

Baxter, who has spearheaded the opposition for years, said the group has been able to collect more than 8,300 signatures from Maverick County residents who don’t want to see the mine open.

“We’re very thankful [Judge Saucedo] denied the permit,” he said. “We support it 100 percent, and I think most of the people in the county do.”

Aside from concerns about pollution and water safety, there is added frustration about this proposed mine because the coal can’t be used locally. It’s too low-grade to burn in the United States and instead will be shipped across the Rio Grande to the Mexican state of Coahuila.

But Rodriguez and his partners argue that the mine will still boost the local economy. They continue to pitch locals on how the mine could benefit them. Thirty-one percent of the county’s residents are below the poverty level, almost twice the state’s 17 percent average. And only about 57 percent of local residents have at least a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Our capital investment [in the area] has increased to $147 million” Rodriguez said. “We will have a business symposium explaining how local folks can do business with the mine.”

Nevárez said the benefits don’t outweigh the risks.

“So they sponsor a few Little League teams and put some ads in the paper,” he said. “What does that all mean in the grand scheme when they poison the drinking supply? They are only looking at half the story.”

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