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 little-known coal of Texas

By Ingrid Lobet

Oil, and then natural gas, made Texas famous. Now it’s famous as well for having far and away the most wind energy of any state. But here’s a little-known fact: Texas is a major coal producer, and its coal is not like most other states’ coal. It’s an infant phase, still damp, called lignite.

“Basically it is brown dirt,” says Fred Beach, assistant director at the University of Texas Energy Institute. “Oily mud is another way we commonly refer to it.”

Lignite in Texas

Half an hour out of Austin, a dragline removes earth to get to lignite coal below. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

Just past the town of Elgin, known for its barbecue and sausage, there’s a dragline practically hanging over the road on a recent day.

“Most people in Austin really have no clue that there is a strip mine located only 30 miles away from the city,” says Tom Edgar, director of the University of Texas Energy Institute. “We pay more attention to renewable energy. So it’s kind of a well-kept secret.”

About a dozen Texas coal mines lie in a necklace from Louisiana toward the border with Mexico, across the giant state. That line is no accident. It traces the ancient shoreline of Texas. Millennia ago, vegetation, trees and woody matter were deposited here.

“Given enough time, given pressure and heat, you actually form this coal-like substance,” Edgar says.

The coal-like substance is called brown coal in Europe, where it still makes up a substantial piece of the power pie.

But it’s not so carbon rich. You need to burn almost twice as much lignite as bituminous coal to get the same amount of energy, according to Coal Data, A Reference, and the Energy Information Administration.

“You also get a whole lot more ash generated,” says Beach. “You get more particulate in the exhaust fume gases. So lignite has a lot going against it.”

It’s also wet.

“A lot of the energy that could be used to produce electricity is actually used to evaporate the water,” says J.P. Nicot, of UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

But Texas figured out a way to make this low quality fuel pencil out nonetheless, about three decades ago. It started building the coal power plants right next to the mines. They’re called mine mouth power plants.

“You’re literally digging it out of the ground, putting it on a conveyor belt, and it’s going right into the power plant,” Beach says.

There are two reasons to avoid shipping lignite long distances. It’s expensive, and lignite has a tendency to catch fire.

Coal mining regions in Texas. (Source: Texas Almanac)

Coal mining regions in Texas. (Source: Texas Almanac)

But when the power plant is right next to the mine, the fuel is cheap, it’s steady and it’s local. In short, it’s irreplaceable, says Mike Nasi, an attorney with the Gulf Coast Lignite Coalition. Together with coal imported from outside the state, this is how Texas generates more than a third of its juice.

“It’s a significant hedge against price volatility,” Nasi says. “It’s only 38 percent of our grid, but it’s an extremely valuable part.”

(According to ERCOT, the independent system operator for Texas, coal generated 36 percent of electricity in 2014.)

Texas’ power-heavy industries, like refining and chemicals, rely on this inexpensive power. This is in large part why Texas so fiercely opposes the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which forces reductions in carbon emissions from each state’s power generators.

“It’s not just the coal producers and power producers that show up and ask for policies to be reasonable,” Nasi says. “It is Dow chemical. It is Occidental Petroleum. It is Valero. And the reason is their single highest line-item cost is electricity.”

The CO2 cuts vary by state. Between a third and half of Texas’ coal power plants will likely close. But Nasi says that doesn’t mean Texas’ second-rate coal is going to stay in the ground now, as climate scientists say it should.

“Lignite is going to continue to power that fleet,” he says.


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


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