Amid Opposition, South Texas Coal Mine Approved

Photo by Mose Buchele/KUT News

A train carrying coal across the border to the Carbones Coal Plant outside Piedras Negras, Coahuila.

Two decades ago, the debate over a South Texas coal mine began. Today, Texas officials took a big step toward ending the debate and beginning to mine.

The Railroad Commission of Texas approved a controversial permit today to allow Mexican company Dos Republicas to begin strip-mining coal near the Texas border town of Eagle Pass.

How the coal will be handled marks a change in U.S. energy consumption.

The coal excavated from the mine will be transported across the border into Mexico and burned in coal-fired plants about twenty miles from the U.S. border outside Piedras Negras. The export of the coal is due, in part, to stricter emissions standards imposed by the EPA and cheap natural gas that have made many coal power plants uneconomical to operate.

Critics worry the low-grade Texas coal will give off nasty pollutants when burned in the more loosely-regulated power plant south of the border.

Residents from around Eagle Pass traveled to Austin and aired a litany of complaints during the open meeting at the Railroad Commission Tuesday. (The Railroad Commission regulates the oil, gas and coal industry in Texas, not railroads. They may be due for a name change during this legislative session, however.)

Ricardo Calderon, the publisher of the Eagle Pass Business Journal and a lawyer, said the citizens lack the medical resources to combat the illnesses the coal mines will cause.

“What we have is an environmental injustice. We have an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen,” Calderon said.

The most common complaint was the threat of air pollution from the burning of the coal across the border, and water pollution ultimately entering the Rio Grande.

Photo by Mose Buchele/KUT News

Residents of Maverick County are concerned about the effects of a new coal project.

One Eagle Pass resident, a retired schoolteacher named Juanita Martinez, took to her knees and begged the Commission to think of the children in nearby schools that would be affected by the strip mines.

George Baxter, an outspoken critic of the newly permitted mine, said that the 100-year-old abandoned Lamar mines in the area, over which many people now live, could collapse if the strip-miners blast near them.

Texas Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman said the complaint that Texans would not benefit at all was misguided. South Texas was spared power outages during summer months because Mexican power plants sent electricity across the border, he said.

“The reality is, we have surface mining throughout the state, from deep East Texas all the way south to South Texas, and it provides a large amount of the electricity that is produced and consumed in Texas,” Smitherman said.

Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick and Smitherman both voted to approve the permit while Commissioner Porter voted against it.

Many of the problems, like pollution from the Mexican power plants and coal dust emitted from trains traveling outside the mining area, are out of the Railroad Commission’s jurisdiction, the Commissioners said.

Even though the permit was approved, the case is not closed.

“I’m sure this process continues somewhere down the line at the courthouse or some other place,” said Smitherman following the vote.

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