By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Local protest may not prevent EOG Resources, Inc. from eventually operating its 1,400-acre frac sand mine near Saint Jo, but opponents admit the controversy has grabbed public attention and spread awareness.
“I think the interest here is going to make people stop and look,” said mine opponent Penny Jordan. “And they’re aware now of what is happening, and they care.”
Gainesville Civic Center was the venue on Monday and Tuesday for case hearings officiated by State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) judges Penny Wilkov and Travis Vickery, who heard arguments for and against granting the EOG company an air quality control permit.
Wilkov said a permit decision, which in the affirmative would allow EOG to proceed with mining sand following a delay of more than two years, is still months away.
Hearings in Austin earlier in April were followed by the hearings this week in Gainesville — set to be followed with more hearings in Austin that begin Thursday. The local hearings included arguments by the legal representatives of EOG, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and members of Red River Motorcycle Trails Inc.
The organization’s members are against the proposal due to the mine’s potentially hazardous emissions into air and water.
After the hearings, the SOAH judge said Tuesday, the “interested parties” can submit additional written briefs, which will lead to a closing of the record and a decision within 60 days by TCEQ officials.
“It’s more complicated than most of the work we do at SOAH,” Wilkov said. “It’s one of the most complicated cases, and we do coal and power plant cases.”
Jordan, who helped lead complaints about the EOG project during spring 2011, said the SOAH hearings in Gainesville left her unsure of which way TCEQ will decide.
“It’s really hard to say, since you see each side making points and you don’t know what it’s going to take to stop or restrict or, in some ways, change the proposed facility as it’s currently represented in the air permit application,” she said. “So it’s really hard to get a feel for it and I don’t know at this point.”
But Jordan said the ongoing local protest has had the effect of prolonging the decision process, which has been an advantage for anyone who opposes the mine itself.
“This is a complex case,” she said. “One of the things they mentioned in Austin was the fact that there are eight or nine sand mines already in the state of Texas. But this is the first one to have ever been contested.”
Jordan added that according to testimony she heard during the SOAH hearing, the proposed air quality operating guidelines for the mine were created “piecemeal” from several others.
“There are no guidelines for this kind of facility,” she said Tuesday. “It’s hard to determine how the TCEQ could determine that the emissions are going to be within acceptable guidelines when there are no guidelines. That, to me, is a really critical point.”
But Jordan said the public attention from residents in Cooke and Montague counties may have had an effect on how carefully SOAH and TCEQ officials deliberate in their steps leading to a permit decision.
“I think that they are taking this very seriously because they realize people are going to be looking at this,” she said. “They’re not accustomed to the public being involved with this. They’re accustomed to attorneys getting together and doing what they do, and the public is nowhere around.”