TCEQ: Contested Coal Mine Can Release Wastewater Into Drinking Supply

Locals called the environmental regulators' decision ‘unconscionable.’

Luis Martinez, a Maverick County resident who opposes the Dos Republicas mine, speaks out against the TCEQ's decision to grant the mine a wastewater permit Wednesday. Nearby Elm Creek runs through Martinez's property.
Naveena Sadasivam
Luis Martinez, a Maverick County resident who opposes the Dos Republicas mine, speaks out against the TCEQ’s decision to grant Dos Republicas a wastewater permit Wednesday. Nearby Elm Creek, which could be polluted by the mine, runs through Martinez’s property.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved expanding a wastewater permit for a South Texas coal mine over vocal opposition from locals Wednesday.

The permit amendment allows Dos Republicas Coal Partnership, which operates a 6,300-acre mine near Eagle Pass, to discharge waste-polluted stormwater and mine seepage into nearby Elm Creek, which feeds the Rio Grande — the source of drinking water for many Maverick County residents — and Hediondo Creek, a recreational fishing stream.

The agency’s decision is a blow to a broad coalition of groups in Maverick County that oppose the mine, including the county hospital district, the city of Eagle Pass and its school district, native tribes, environmental groups and the more than 8,000 residents who signed a petition asking that the mine be closed.

Martha Baxter, a resident of Maverick County who has led the opposition to the mine, told reporters the commission’s decision is “unconscionable” and “an affront to humanity.” She and the nearly two dozen Maverick County residents and supporters who drove more than three hours to Austin for the TCEQ meeting worry that the expanded permit will allow Dos Republicas to contaminate Elm Creek, killing aquatic life and endangering residents who depend on the creek for drinking water.

Baxter said the commission’s decision turns the people of Maverick County into collateral damage in the service of profits. It was, she said, as if the agency told the company, “you go ahead and make your money and keep feeding all of those politicians in Austin and Texas and the U.S. so they can betray their own people.”

During the hearing, commissioners did not address the broader implications of the permit for the health of Maverick County residents, instead sticking to discussions of minor changes to the scope of the permit. Their unanimous vote to accept the permit was met with boos from protesters in the crowd.

Dos Republicas was first granted a wastewater permit in 1994 and has since renewed its permit three times, most recently in 2011. The expanded permit allows the company to discharge overflow from sedimentation ponds into Elm Creek. The ponds hold waste generated during the mining process.

“It is extremely sad and disappointing to witness the TCEQ rubber stamping this permit that basically makes it impossible for the people of Eagle Pass and Maverick County to preserve and protect their water,” said Tane Ward, senior organizing manager for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, in a statement. “The TCEQ permitting process exists to protect these people from pollution, not put them at risk of exposure to toxic coal runoff.”

In addition to the environmental and public health concerns, opponents of the mine argue that it provides few direct benefits to Texans. The low-grade coal produced by Dos Republicas is transported for power generation to a coal plant in Mexico. When burnt, the coal releases toxic pollutants that can blow back into Texas and worsen air quality along the border.

At the hearing, TCEQ commissioners debated over three key issues relating to the scope of the permit: Whether to include a limit on boron, which is toxic to certain species of fish; whether aluminum levels should be monitored; and how frequently wastewater discharge streams should be sampled and analyzed by the company.

On two of those issues — the boron limit and aluminum monitoring — the commission sided with the mining company and did not impose water quality protection measures. On the issue of how often to sample discharges, commissioners imposed a more stringent schedule than initially recommended by TCEQ staff.

That decision, while an improvement, was “like making sure you get the color right of the drapes inside the house while the foundation is collapsing,” said David Frederick, counsel for Maverick County, at a press conference outside the TCEQ offices.

Opponents of the mine also questioned whether the operator of the mine, a contractor hired by Dos Republicas, was required to apply for the permit and whether the TCEQ had adequately reviewed the effects of releasing coal waste into the creeks on water quality. The commission found Dos Republicas to be the appropriate applicant for the permit and found the environmental review adequate.

The mine’s protesters are also moving forward with other attempts to stop the company from mining in Eagle Pass, including a lawsuit that Maverick County has now taken to the Texas Supreme Court.

“This is the start of the fight,” said Maria Torres, tribal chairwoman for the Pacuache Indian Tribe First Nation of Texas, at the post-hearing press conference. “This is not over. The state agencies have failed the process.”

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University.

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Published at 4:54 pm CST