Border Coal Battles Continue

Mexican and U.S. opponents of a planned new open surface coal mine on the Texas-Tamaulipas border rallied August 10 on an international bridge between Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Coahuila. Engaging in a “friendship hug” at the international line dividing their two countries, the border residents vowed to press ahead with a long-running battle against Dos Republicas Coal Partnership.

Planned for a site in Texas about seven miles from Eagle Pass, Dos Republicas proposes to open a 6,300-acre coal mine that would extract as many as 2.8 million tons of bituminous coal every year. A Dos Republicas coal mine is already in operation on the Piedras Negras side of the border.

At the August 10 action,  Piedras Negras activist Victor Manuel Perez charged that the Mexican mine was approved in an illegal manner by the city council during a December 2009 meeting held at 5 a.m. in the morning, a very unusual  time for a local government meeting in Mexico.

From the planned Texas mine, Dos Republicas plans to ship by rail the coal, deemed too low quality for U.S. use, to two large Mexican Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) power plants in Coahuila that are blamed by environmentalists and U.S. officials for air pollution problems in Texas’  Big Bend National Park.

In a 2011 study, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the environmental side commission established under the North American Free Trade Agreement, reported that one of the CFE’s coal-fired Coahuila plants, the Jose L. Portillo facility, ranked among the top North American emitters of air pollutants, emitting 55,871 tons of nitrogen oxides.

According to the CEC, North America’s fossil fuel electricity generating plants like Jose L. Portillo  account for 33 percent of the continent’s and 6 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  The Montreal-based environmental commission’s report was based on data collected in 2005.

The anti-mine movement, uniting the Eagle Pass and Maverick County governments,  the Sierra Club, the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association, the Piedras Negras Betterment Citizen Council, and local ranchers, among others, contends the mine will threaten ground and surface water supplies, including the Rio Grande. The activists also charge it will increase local air pollution, release methane gas, cause property destruction from blasting, and jeopardize the habitats of the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi cats.

“Coal that generates electric power has to come from somewhere,” Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association vice-president George Baxter was quoted earlier this year. “But the fact that we are going to suffer all the consequences and all the power goes to Mexico is really the sticking point in my mind.”

By May of this year, more than 6,500 local residents had signed a petition opposing the Texas state permit. A decision on the permit renewal could come this fall.

In order to make the mine project a reality, Dos Republicas and its associates must renew a permit from the Texas Railroad Commission as well obtain a permit from the U.S. Department of State for the construction of a cross-border railroad bridge and line.

Mine opponent Baxter said that he suspected the real purpose of the project was to put a new rail link between the U.S. and Mexico that could be used to ship other products like beer from Grupo Modelo’s brewery in Piedras Negras.

Baxter told a reporter: “You talk about a dream situation for certain situations: your own private railroad, your own private bridge and your own private property on both sides of the river to unload and load it.”

Once among the leading opponents, the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe recently withdrew its participation-and legal muscle-from the Dos Republicas fight. The Kickapoos’ abrupt turn-around fueled speculation that Dos Republicas had hatched a deal with the tribe.

Dos Republicas disputes its opponents’ contentions, challenging statements that the mining operation will pollute the border environment and disrupt residents’ lives.   The company claims that its project will create up to 200 jobs paying as much as $24 per hour, a very high wage in the border region.

Dos Republicas’ website contends that measures will be taken to control water and dust pollution, and that economic other benefits will flow to the area including a projected yearly increase of 25 percent in sales tax revenues for the Eagle Pass and an annual jump of one million dollars in new property tax collections for Maverick County. According to Dos Republicas, the coal reserves could be mined for seven or eight years.

Company spokesman Rudy Rodriguez has also denied that a monetary deal had been struck with the Kickapoos. “They toured the facilities in Mexico, the coal mine and what it would look like on this side..,” Rodriguez told the Texas Tribune, adding that he was “always surprised as to why they were in opposition to begin with,” since the tribe is physically located on the other side of the county from the planned mine.

Dos Republicas  is linked to the Mexican energy and steel conglomerate Altos Hornos de Mexico (AHMSA). The big company has also been in the news lately because of a deadly August 3 accident at an AHMSA-owned coal mine in Coahuila that claimed the lives of six miners. The tragedy came just nine days after a methane gas explosion took the loves of seven miners at a Coahuila coal pit run by different owners. In November 2011, four workers died at one of the CFE’s Coahuila power plants.

Denouncing the latest fatalities as constituting “industrial homicide,” Mexico’s National Miners Union said it would pursue criminal charges against AHMSA.

Following the latest deaths, hundreds of miners conducted a work stoppage at the AHMSA mine located in the Coahuila municipality of Progreso.  The company then announced it was shutting the facility down until “confidence is restored” among the workforce.

Even as the Eagle Pass controversy continues, pressure is mounting on Mexican officials to take action in addressing labor conditions in the Coahuila coal industry. State Governor Ruben Moreira dismissed mine closures as a solution, stressing that 20,000 local jobs and between 8 and 12 percent of Mexico’s electric power capacity was at stake.  But federal Economy Secretary Bruno Ferrari announced August 9 that permission for 32 coal mines to operate had been suspended and could be definitively withdrawn if unsafe conditions persist.

The goal is not to stop extracting coal,” Ferrari said. “Rather, to do it in a safe way.”

The Dos Republicas conflict also deepened at a time when the federal governments of United States and Mexico renewed a commitment to joint environmental protection and improvement of their common 2,000-mile long border zone. In a Washington meeting last week, top officials from the  Obama and Calderon administrations signed an agreement establishing the Border Environment 2020 Program, the latest phase of cooperative initiatives growing out of the 1983 La Paz Agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. Improving the border’s air quality is one of the top priorities of the Border 2020 program.

Additional sources: Eagle Pass Business Journal, August 6 and 11, 2012. Articles by Jose G, Landa. El Diario de Juarez, August 8, 2012. Proceso/Apro, November 23, 2011; August 3, 7 and 9, 2012. Articles by  Arturo Rodriguez Garcia, Juan Alberto Cedillo and editorial staff.  La Jornada, August 3 and 4, 2012. Articles by Leopoldo Ramos and Notimex. Texas Tribune, May 16, 2012. Article by Julian Aguilar. New York Times, February 10, 2012. Article by Julian Aguilar.

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