The state’s environmental regulatory agency on Wednesday struck a crucial blow against the efforts of a coalition of border residents and environmental activists to halt a coal mine from expanding its operations near the Rio Grande.
In a unanimous decision, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s three-member board voted to both renew and expand a wastewater permit for Dos Republicas Coal Partnership. The permit paves the way for the company to expand its current operations and mine up to 6,300 acres of land for low-quality coal within Maverick County. The mine’s opponents, who have fought the project for years, predict it will pollute the air and that discharge from the mine will seep into the Rio Grande, which is the area’s only source of water.
Several indigenous groups have also argued that the mine threatens sacred ancestral ground and that the tribes were never given proper notification about the company’s plans.
Dos Republicas is owned by Mexican companies and partners in Texas with the Plano-based North American Coal Corporation and its subsidiary Camino Real Fuels. Because the coal is categorized as too low-grade for use in the United States, it’s shipped to Coahuila for use in Mexican plants, which has added to the outrage of Eagle Pass and Maverick County residents.
“We expect [the TCEQ] to defend us to say ‘No, you’re too close to this population,’” Martha Baxter, a representative of the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association, said after the TCEQ hearing. “But they said, ‘It’s OK for you to do it. These people are not important; they are collateral damage. Go ahead and make your money.’”
After the hearing — which lasted just more than an hour — Eagle Pass residents said it was nothing but political theater as the commission seemed determined to approve the permit before the proceedings even began.
The only significant discussion dealt with amending the application to make follow-up testing for possible environmental effects more sporadic, as the commissioners conceded that results could vary over time.
David Frederick, an attorney representing Maverick County, said the concession was welcome but minimal at best.
“It’s like making sure you get the colors of the drapes right inside the house while the foundation is collapsing and the plumbing is all stopped up,” he said after the hearing. “I consider that an improvement, although a trivial” one.
David Galindo, the director of TCEQ’s water quality division, said the agency follows the proper guidelines when making any determination about environmental quality and added that the commissioners thoroughly reviewed all the materials relevant to the permit renewal.
“When they walk in to discuss the issues, they’ve read all the facts that are on the record,” he said. “They use that information to make that decision.”
Representatives for Dos Republicas were not available for comment after the hearing, but the company has said in the past that the mine serves as a job creator in an area with one of the highest poverty rates in the state.
Wednesday’s decision leaves the mine’s opponents with few — if any — options left to oust the company. George Baxter, president of the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association and Martha Baxter’s husband, said the group is waiting on the Texas Supreme Court to decide whether to take up the case.
He hopes the state’s high court will consider reversing a ruling last year from the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals that upheld a 2013 decision made by the Texas Railroad Commission to approve a permit that allowed the company to mine the land. He added that the group will also look into what can be done at the federal level.
To opponents of the mine, Wednesday’s TCEQ decision signaled a new call to arms to educate the public about how the state’s leaders treat border residents.
“The system isn’t going to change as long as you remain politically insignificant regardless of what party you vote for,” said Frederick. “It’s just real important to get a higher level of voter participation along the Rio Grande than we currently have.”
Added Martha Baxter: “Just because we’re poor, predominantly Hispanic and indigenous does not mean that we do not have rights. I’m asking all of you, stand up for us, please. Because today it’s us — tomorrow it’s going to be you.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Top image: Many protested the coal mine from expanding its operations near the Rio Grande. Photo by Julián Aguilar for The Texas Tribune.