At first glance it might seem like good news. Carbon emissions in the US have dropped in recent years. Texas, the country’s biggest CO2 polluter, has started turning away from coal as a source of electricity. But that doesn’t mean the coal is staying in the ground. More and more often it’s shipped to other countries with weak records of environmental enforcement.
That trend is especially troubling for communities on the Texas-Mexico border.
In the rural parts of Maverick County all sorts of things still manage to move unhindered between Mexico and the US. Some welcome, some not. Residents like Rosa O’Donnell recall a day last year when the air was filled with smoke from agricultural fires.
“All the neighbors, we were out on the road driving, trying to drive back and forth down the road until the deputy stopped and said ‘don’t worry the fires are in Mexico,’ O’Donell remembered recently. “Because we were worried.”
These days, smoke from burning fields seems like the least of their concerns. For around 20 years a site for a strip mine has sat essentially unused next door to O’Donnell’s property. The Mexican owners of the Dos Republicas mine are now ready to start digging. They want to ship coal to Mexico and burn it in power plants outside the City of Piedras Negras, right across the border. And while some people in Maverick County welcome the jobs that could bring, many, including city and county governments, are vehemently opposed to it.
O’Donnell and her neighbors have formed the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association to fight the mine.
“We’re sending coal over there that the United States will not use because it’s so low quality, and then we’re sending it to Mexico so they can burn it over there, and it pollutes us over there and it pollutes us over here when it goes through town every day,” explained Association member Martha Baxter.
Martha’s husband George described the mine as the “worst of both worlds.”
“We’re getting the negative effects of the strip mine, without any of the benefits of electric power generation,” he told StateImpact Texas.
His concerns echo wider anxieties over increasing exports of American coal. In the U.S. stricter environmental regulations and the turn toward natural gas has caused coal use to drop dramatically, but that doesn’t mean American coal isn’t still being burned. Recently, much of it has just been creating electricity, and polluting the air, in other parts of the world. Like the proposed coal from the Dos Republicas mine, more and more American coal is being sold to export. Exports to Mexico nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010. Then increase again by 23 percent last year. Like Mexico, many of the countries buying US coal are not well-known for strict environmental regulation, leaving some to worry about the larger environmental impacts of the international coal trade
In Eagle Pass, the seat of government in Maverick County, residents worry about pollution from nearby Mexican coal plants blowing back into Texas.
“Its so unfortunate that the EPA they cant do nothing about it because its in Mexico,and they cant do nothing about. ” said anti-mine activist Gabriel de la Cerda. “But we can stop it here.”
International Trade, International Protest
A recent meeting of mine opponents at a restaurant in Eagle Pass, illustrated the cross-border nature of the environmental challenge. Association members slipped easily between English and Spanish. Alfonso Lopez, a Mexican immigrant who used to live in Piedras Negras across the border, described the public health impact he witnessed after working decades for mining companies in Mexico.
“[Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras] are two sister cities,” he said, speaking in Spanish, “one will suffer the effects of the mine just like the other.”
Sandra Martinez, who grew up in Piedras Negras and now live in Maverick County close to the site of the mine, explained the frustration of immigrants from Mexico who are fighting Dos Republicas.
“We came from countries where we don’t have rights, don’t have a voice,” she said, “and it turns out that we’re in an even worse county?” .
But the case of the Dos Republicas mine could set a precedent in how Texas chooses to regulate or not regulate its exports of coal.
Outside the Purview of the State
In order to move ahead with mining, Dos Republicas has applied for more permits from the Texas Railroad Commission –the state agency that handles Texas natural resources. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has already signed off on necessary water permits, and the mine owners argue that the end destination of the coal, or how it will be used, shouldn’t be a consideration for the granting of permits from the railroad commission.
“[The] Texas railroad commission doesn’t deal with that regulatory piece when it gets on a rail car or gets on a truck,” Rudy Rodriguez, a public relations consultant for Dos Republicas, told StateImpact Texas.
Rodriguez framed the debate surrounding the Dos Republicas project as one of free trade. The very name Piedras Negras is Spanish for black rock, or coal, he pointed out.
“Our [U.S.] economy thrives because of that [Mexican] money coming in and being invested in this community,” he said.
But opponents argue that there the Railroad Commission still has regulatory authority to deny the mine’s permits. They point to a section of the state’s Natural Resources Code that says the state should strike a balance between environmental protection and the state’s need for coal as a source of energy.
“You know what really concerns us is what happens is a result of the mine outside the permit area, the air pollution, the water pollution and the bad effects from blasting,” said George Baxter.
So far, the Commission’s Hearing Examiner has said she will hear testimony on the where the coal could end up. But that doesn’t mean it will be a deciding factor in whether to grant the permits that allow mining to begin. That, ultimately, will be up to the three people on the Railroad Commission to decide.
It’s a decision that could shape how Texas deals with the export of coal well into the future.