Despite staunch opposition from politicians to local leaders to environmental advocacy groups, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) unanimously approved renewing and expanding a wastewater permit for a controversial coal mine near the border community of Eagle Pass, Texas.
The decision allows the Dos Republicas Coal Partnership, which operates a coal mine about 7 miles northeast of Eagle Pass, to increase the amount of waste it discharges into Elm Creek, which spills into the Rio Grande. Without the renewal of the wastewater permit to include those expanded boundaries, the mining company says it couldn't operate.
However, local residents, Maverick County and Eagle Pass elected officials, Texas Senator Carlos I. Uresti, who represents the area, and the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association have joined hands with social and environmental advocates, lobbying TCEQ to deny to the permit, saying it threatens the local ecosystem and alleging that toxic chemicals and heavy metals will make water unsafe for drinking and recreation. Opponents also say the mine threatens more than 100 Native American archeological sites with dynamite blasting, surface mining and toxic substances that will destroy Native American burial sites, historic artifacts and other sacred sites.
TCEQ commissioners listened patiently to concerns, but during the meeting described them as speculation, not fact — particularly when it came to concerns about two heavy metals: aluminum and boron, which have already been found on the mine site, TCEQ documents show.
Dos Republicas argued that water samples where aluminum was present weren't accurate because they measured whole aluminum, not dissolved aluminum. According to Dos Republicas' expert witness, dissolved aluminum is dangerous whereas whole aluminum isn't problematic. Dos Republicas also said the samples with high levels of aluminum weren't fair because they were taken from a monitoring well with some of the worst quality water at the mine site. Boron, which can cause agricultural problems, is naturally found at the site.
Because of this, two administrative law judges recommended including limits on how much boron could be in wastewater and monitoring discharges for aluminum. TCEQ commissioners chose to ignore that recommendation and amended the draft permit to remove language requiring Dos Republicas to monitor aluminum and limit boron in discharges, saying it's not needed at this time. Dos Republicas will only be required to sample for boron and aluminum every two years.
Tane Ward, senior organizing manager for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, called the TCEQ's decision extremely sad and disappointing, saying it makes it impossible for Eagle Pass residents to preserve and protect their water.
“The TCEQ permitting process exists to protect these people from pollution, not put them at risk of exposure to toxic coal runoff,” Ward said in a statement.
Sen. Carlos Uresti said he was disappointed in TCEQ's decision.
"I have stood with local officials and the community in the belief that issuance of this permit will result in negative environmental and impact the health of my constituents," Uresti said in a statement. "These wastewater discharges will threaten Eagle Pass' water supply from the Rio Grande. Another concern is the use of the low-grade coal from this mine in high-emission power plants just across the U.S. border. With the prevailing winds, those emissions degrade air quality in Maverick County and in areas of District 19 such as Big Bend National Park."
Opposition in Eagle Pass began to intensify in October 2015 after a major flooding event that impacted 300 residences. The Dos Republicas coal mine may have flooded and discharged into Elm Creek where there was a massive fish kill, the Eagle Pass Business Journal reported
. Residents suspected the mine was to blame, but the Environmental Protection Agency's investigation was inconclusive, the magazine reported.