In Texas, a coal mine opens to power Mexico

by Ingrid Lobet

Many times we’ve heard coal is dead, and many times it’s been reborn. Usually the picture is more complicated. Coal companies are declaring bankruptcy and have lost monstrous market share — more than 50 percent on average, according to the financial news service SNL.

Yet new coal mines continue to open and others expand. In one Texas county on the Mexican border, local officials and residents seem nearly united in their opposition to a new coal strip mine, the Eagle Pass Mine. The company that owns it, Dos Republicas Coal Partnership, says it intends to ship out the first load of coal by train in September.

The Carbon II coal-fired power plant in Nava, Mexico, where coal from a new mine in Eagle Pass, Texas will be burned. (photo: Ingrid Lobet)

The Carbon II coal-fired power plant in Nava, Mexico, where coal from a new mine in Eagle Pass, Texas will be burned.
(photo: Ingrid Lobet)

Dos Republicas is backed, through layered ownership, by a major Mexican steel and coal firm, Altos Hornos de Mexico, S.A. (AHMSA). All the coal from the Eagle Pass Mine is bound for Mexico. It will fire the Carbon I and II power plants located half an hour south of the border in Nava, in the state of Coahuila.

“The excuse is that ‘we need energy,’” says Martha Bowles Baxter, a resident of Eagle Pass who has long opposed the mining plans. “Well, the energy is going to Mexico.”

It appears to be the first time a coal mine has been built in the United States to serve a power plant in Latin America.

Bowles Baxter’s husband, George Baxter, a civil engineer, says the smoke from the generating station in Mexico often drifts north here to Eagle Pass.

“You see the brown line, horizontal line of pollution,” he says. “It extends as far as the eye can see.”

Now, he says, in addition to the effects of burning coal, they’ll face the effects of mining it.

“Apparently the war on coal does not extend to Maverick County,” George Baxter says.

The Baxters’ chief worries are widely shared. The local school district, city council and hospital officials oppose the mine. Many concerns focus on water. The Eagle Pass Mine will discharge into Elm Creek, a creek which now runs through the mine, just before it joins the Rio Grande. Less than a mile downstream the city of Eagle Pass takes its drinking water.

Events in recent months have heightened a second water concern. The Eagle Pass area has experienced two 100-year floods in two years, according to David Saucedo, the Maverick County flood plain administrator.

“In 2013 we had 16 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. In 2014, we had 12 inches in a 24-hour period,” Saucedo says.

One hundred twenty houses were damaged or destroyed.

“You have seen these people go through these things. And on top of those floods, now you have to worry what is in the water? It weighs on you,” says Saucedo, who is also the county judge in Maverick County. County judge is traditionally a powerful position in Texas.

elm creek flood

The Elm Creek Subdivision, adjacent to the new mine, was flooded by rain-swollen Elm Creek in 2013. Residents fear future floods will carry mine silt and waste. (Photo courtesy of Eagle Press Business Journal)

Two successive floods, each with a one-in-a-hundred chance of happening in any year, would seem to indicate that what was rare, is no longer so rare. The chance of two 100-year floods occurring back-to-back, randomly, is one in 10,000. Texas mining regulations require that the ponds that are supposed to collect heavy rains before they carry silt into the creek be dug deep enough to withstand just a 10-year flood.

Flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) indicate an official flood zone along the creek where it runs through the mine. This prompted Judge Saucedo to oppose the mine’s flood permit. The company sued him. A lower court judge agreed Saucedo acted within his authority and that case is at the state’s Thirteenth Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi.

In the course of those arguments, the mine has gone from paper to reality. Already, $60 million dollars’ worth of equipment has arrived at the site, hundreds of acres have been excavated, and offices and parking lots for workers have been carved into the mesquite.

Yet Martha Bowles Baxter believes another flood, this time carrying mud or mine waste, is inevitable, and that many home will be in the path of the water. The local newspaper refers to the area directly adjoining the mine as “densely populated.”

“When FEMA comes in, they are going to render all of that land completely contaminated,” Bowles Baxter says. “And those people are going to be losing all their homesteads, what they plan to give their children. And no one cares because this area is very, very poor and Hispanic.

But Rudy Rodriguez, who represents the mine owners, says not all of the mine area is in the flood plain, and engineered ponds at the mine will actually ameliorate flooding. Rodriguez says the mine plan also complies with numerous agencies’ requirements and all state and federal law.

Already, Rodriguez says, hard-hit Maverick County is benefiting from the tens of millions dollars the mine has spent on equipment. At the mine, he points to a mechanic changing a tire on a truck so large it makes his Cadillac Escalade look like a Matchbox car. The tire alone cost $35,000, he said. Under the current footprint of the mine, which the owners already seek to expand, it would inject more than $147 million dollars into the local and regional economy.

By one measure the project has been popular – when it held a fair to connect with local vendors and would be employees.

“We started at eight o’clock in the morning and went on in the evening,” Rodriguez said. “We had so many people want jobs – 680 applicants for 100 jobs.”

Judge Saucedo says most of the town would rather see retail employment. Eight thousand people signed a petition against the coal mine, he says.

“To put that in perspective, you had 5,500 people come out to vote in the last election,” Saucedo says. “Now, when you have more people signing a petition than going out to vote, that should send a message.”

On August 10, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a federal hearing in Eagle Pass to gather public comment following a request by Dos Republicas to add 25,000 acres of potential mine area to its existing 6,346 acres. According to the Eagle Pass Business Journal, all 28 people who testified, including Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantú, spoke against the mine and its expansion.


Ingrid Lobet reported this story for BURN and the public radio show Marketplace.


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The Adaptors Earth Day Special

Earth Day Radio Special

This hour-long radio edition of The Adaptors is being broadcast this spring on hundreds of public radio stations from one coast to another and in between. Flora Lichtman and Alex Chadwick introduce us to people with outside-the-box solutions for addressing climate change. Like an inventor in Canada who believes we can power the world with tornado machines, and a chemist who is building a better battery. Plus, a philosopher’s radical idea of engineering the human body to adapt to a changing climate.



Subscribe to The Adaptors Podcast.


Video from The Adaptors

What if you had an idea that you thought could solve the world’s energy problems? What if your idea was a tornado machine?

Engineer Louis Michaud is be part of our Earth Day radio special.

Here’s a video taste of his story.



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Energy poverty: where there’s no grid at all

Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Access to electricity is a given in this country. It’s not something most of us even think about until a storm or excessive demand shut off the lights. Our presumption of electricity connectivity makes the following statistic, from the International Energy Agency, all the more sobering: Nearly 1.3 billion people on this planet do not have electricity. That is about one-fifth of the global population.

The IEA says that more than 95% of people without modern energy access live in developing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Here are some details from the IEA’s 2012 World Energy Outlook:

          There are nearly 630 million people in developing Asia and nearly 590 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to electricity. Just ten countries – four in Asia and six in Africa – collectively account for nearly two-thirds of those deprived of electricity.

In all of Africa, 57% of the population is without electricity, according to the IEA. In Uganda the percentage is 92%. India has the largest population without grid access – 293 million – although the IEA report notes that India “has actually been a driving force in improving the trend in South Asia over the last decade, reducing the number of people without access to electricity by around 285 million.”

People w-o electricity 2010

IEA’s energy poverty country list (data is for 2010)

In the United States, it is hard to find data regarding Americans who live off the grid. In 2006, USA Today reported that there were “some 180,000 families living off-grid, a figure that has jumped 33 a year for a decade.”

Benjamin Sovacool, a law professor who heads the Energy Security and Justice Program at the Vermont Law School, estimates that the number is “about 300,000 today.”

“My guess is poverty would account for 70 to 75 percent of those off grid,” Sovacool told me. “However, the reasons for being off grid can reflect more than poverty and include technology and lifestyle.

“There are rural homes that are still, believe it or not, too remote from electricity networks to be connected,” Sovacool said. “And there are those adventurous types that pride themselves on being self-sufficient, going off grid by purchasing expensive small-scale wind turbines, microhydro units, solar home systems and the like.”

What is it like for those 1.3 billion people abroad who live, involuntarily, without electricity? For a compelling collection of energy poverty photography go to Peter DiCampo’s web project Life Without Lights.

Listen to BURN’s special The Switch: The Story of Our National Grid




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Duke Energy leader Jim Rogers on smart grids & brownouts

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

Jim Rogers heads the largest electric power company in the country, Duke Energy. They serve about about 22-million people in the Southeast and Midwest. The award-winning CEO talks with host Alex Chadwick about the challenges of powering the nation, what makes the grid great, and the future of efficiency & smart grid innovation.


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Paul Stockton: Keeping the grid safe

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

Paul Stockton was the government’s point man for protecting the nation’s electrical grid from terrorist attacks. He served for four years as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs.

Stockton was the responsible for “defense critical infrastructure protection.” He talks with host Alex Chadwick about the threat of terrorism against the grid. They also discuss  the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how best to protect the grid during the next super storm.

Stockton’s portfolio also included domestic crisis management, and he helped lead the Defense Department’s response to Hurricane Sandy, Deepwater Horizon and other disasters.

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Army’s micro-grid for combat zones

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

An unlikely energy innovator – the US Army – is preparing to deploy a radically redesigned combat outpost featuring a smart micro-grid. COPs are basic military camp for about 100 soldiers. They need to function like small communities – with water, sanitation, food, and power.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, supplying these units with fuel and water became the single greatest point of vulnerability. The new COPs cut fuel demand by at least 50%, which means fewer caravans, and fewer casualties.

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Between bizarre & unimaginable: Life off the grid

Michelle Nijhuis and Jack Perrin's off the grid, straw bale house -- powered by the sun.
Michelle Nijhuis, Jack Perrin and daughter Sylvia on their land in Paonia, Colorado.
Jack does some repair to the mud plaster on the straw bale office he built for Michelle.
Jack (right) built this solar-powered house with long-time friend Dev Carey. It took them four months and cost $700.
The first of two houses Jack Perrin built off the grid here in Paonia. This was constructed with all found materials.
Michelle and Jack in the living room of their home.
A 'truth window' in Michelle's office shows the walls are actually made from straw bales.
4 year-old daughter Sylvia.
These off-the-grid neighbors gather at Michelle and Jack's house for a weekly potluck. It's a close-knit community.
Michelle and Sylvia at bedtime.

Photos:  JT Thomas

Mary Beth Kirchner, BURN Managing Producer

Michelle Nijhuis has lived off the electrical grid with her husband Jack Perrin in the tiny town of Paonia, Colorado – population 1,500 – for fifteen years in a house built with straw bales, plastered with mud and powered by the sun. These two are in the minority in Paonia, with only a couple dozen others who are also off the grid there.

Nijhuis has what some might consider the absolute dream job. She’s an award-winning science journalist who travels the world and has her pick of projects for National Geographic or Smithsonian magazines. But while on the road, she keeps her lifestyle back in rural Colorado rather private. It’s a way of life, she says, many consider “somewhere between bizarre and unimaginable.”

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Electrifying rural America

Bob Malesky, Producer & BURN Contributor

Running a family-owned farm is one of this country’s more difficult livelihoods. Before electrical power, it was even harder. In the early 1930s, only 11% of the country’s farms had power. Fifty years later, nearly all of them had electricity.

Here are oral histories of people who experienced the life-changing transformation, much of it coming courtesy of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Produced by NPR veteran Bob Malesky.


An REA worker hangs power lines. Photo: Library of Congress


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Tim Gallant, electrical lineman

Ari Daniel Shapiro, Science Reporter & BURN Contributor


They are the electric grid army. When the power goes down and the lights go out, a legion of them is deployed.

Power linemen are the first to respond when the public needs to be reconnected with the grid.

This is a portrait of that community through the voice of one of those linemen — what his days are like when things are calm, what happens when disaster strikes, and what he thinks about the state of the grid.

It’s a window into the world of the pole climbing folks in hard hats who, as they like to say, “provide light in a dark night.”

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VIDEO: How the national grid works

Do you REALLY understand how our nation’s electrical grid works? Producer Josh Kurz explains today’s power grid, some of its biggest problems, and how smart grid technology could help.

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