Residents urge Bastrop to can Alcoa road plan

By Robert W. Gee
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Tuesday, January 28, 2003

BASTROP -- About 150 people, several wearing anti-Alcoa bumper stickers on their backs, filled a courtroom Monday night to oppose a plan by the aluminum manufacturer to move six roads in the northwest corner of Bastrop County to make way for a strip mine.

Opponents of the proposed lignite coal mine, unpopular in this county of new subdivisions and ranchettes, urged county commissioners to vote against the road proposal. No residents spoke in favor of it.

Alcoa officials said the plan would provide the county with new, wider roads outside the mine area. The Pennsylvania-based aluminum giant has offered to cover all construction expenses, estimated at million.

"Alcoa is asking you to put your stamp of approval on a plan not only to fix what isn't broken, but to actually increase our traffic and transportation headaches, all under the guise of free asphalt," said Michele Gangnes, a member of the board of directors of Neighbors for Neighbors, the principal opposition group to the proposed Three Oaks Mine.

Company officials have said the new roads would improve traffic flow.

"There really isn't very significant changes," said Jim Hodson, a spokesman for Alcoa in Rockdale. "But those changes will result in better roads than are there."

But those who spoke at the hearing Monday night said they feared workers driving to and from the new mine would choke area roads and make them more dangerous.

"Tell Alcoa they can keep their asphalt, and we can keep our country roads, our countryside and our clean water," said Martha Boethel, who lives in McDade, near the proposed mine.

After the hearing, commissioners voted unanimously to hire an independent engineering firm to investigate safety issues and hazards that could be associated with the potential project.

Commissioners did not decide when they will take a final vote on the matter.

Alcoa plans to mine 5,661 acres in northern Bastrop and southern Lee counties, a patchwork of tracts that it owns or controls about 25 miles east of Austin.

The roads that criss-cross the proposed mine would complicate efforts to mine the coal. But if the county does not give permission to move the roads, Alcoa has said it intends to mine around them.

Under a permit approved in September by the Texas Railroad Commission, Alcoa would mine for three years without touching the roads. But company officials have said they believe they are legally entitled to the coal under the roads and plan to mine it.

Alcoa has estimated that the roads and their 100-foot buffer zones lie atop 12 million tons of coal worth 0 million. Lawyers representing Alcoa told County Judge Ronnie McDonald last summer that the company was willing to sue the county to win access, according to a county memo.

Hodson has denied that company officials threatened to sue the county.

Last fall, Bastrop County commissioners sent surveys to county agencies asking how services might be affected if the roads are moved. The results of those surveys have not been made public.

Neighbors of the proposed mine -- those who live closest say they stand to lose the most, including a measure of their tranquil rural lifestyle -- say the plan to move the roads isn't in the county's best interest.

"We're not just talking about the roads, are we?" said George Wright, 72, who lives adjacent to the proposed mine. "We're talking about pollution. We're talking about wrecking the landscape."

The room erupted in applause.

At one point, mine opponents unrolled a list of signatures -- representing those opposed to moving the roads, they said -- across the length of the courtroom. The list fell on the laps of a handful of Alcoa representatives sitting in the front row.

Mine opponents are also contesting Alcoa's pending permits with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the two remaining hurdles before mining can start. Those agencies are expected to decide about the permits later this year.

Alcoa hopes to start mining in the second half of the year, Hodson said.

For nearly two years, the question of moving the roads has been a hot-button issue in the fast-growing county, which prefers to envision its future as an attractive bedroom community for Austin rather than home to the state's newest strip mine.

The first public hearing on the matter was in August 2001. Strong opposition led to a revised plan that would leave open one county road previously slated for closure.

Commissioners stress that they cannot weigh the road proposal on the merits of the strip mine, but only as a transportation issue.

The Texas Department of Transportation has said it will not give Alcoa approval to move two state roads in the mine area until the county gives approval to move the county roads.

In Lee County, where roughly one-third of Three Oaks Mine would be, commissioners voted unanimously a year and a half ago to let Alcoa move roads. Lee County, closer to the Rockdale smelter, is home to many of Alcoa's employees, and the proposed mine is viewed as an economic opportunity, not an environmental blight.

The lignite coal would fuel Alcoa's nearby Rockdale aluminum smelter, considered by environmentalists to be among the state's biggest polluters, for at least 25 years. The existing Sandow Mine, closer to Rockdale, is running out of coal and is scheduled to shut down by 2005.

bgee@statesman.com; 445-3643