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Despite Presidential Promises, A Texas Town Looks At Life After Coal

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
Rockdale, a city of 5,600 about an hour away from Austin, could be devastated by the closure of the Sandow Power Plant and a coal mine that feeds it.

News that the Sandow Power Plant outside Rockdale was closing broke on Friday the 13th.

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Electrician Steven Garza will be out of a job when the Sandow plant closes in January.

“You would think you could put off till Monday to make that announcement," Steven Garza chuckles. "But that’s how it went down.”

Garza has worked as an electrician at the plant for four years. He and his wife were driving their son to school when he got the call and had to tell her he would be out of a job. 

Michael Morgan worked logistics for a subcontractor at the plant. When a friend told him Sandow was closing, he thought it was a joke.

“I was really in shock,” he says. "It was very difficult going home on Friday the 13th and telling my wife and kids that I was done.”

The Sandow plant was one of three Texas plants the energy company Luminant announced it was closing that day. A coal mine that feeds Sandow is also closing.

The region is expected to lose about 450 jobs from the closures. More than 30 contracting companies are also going to lose business. In this town of 5,600, the impact of those losses could be devastating.

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Energy company Luminant announced last month that it was closing the Sandow Power Plant along with two other plants.

Presidential promises and rotary phones

“We’re really nervous about the trickle-down effect,” Rebecca Vasquez says.

Vasquez runs a gun store on Main Street and heads the local chamber of commerce. She was surprised by the news, thinking the industry might be saved with a coal-friendly administration in the White House.  

“When Trump ran for president, one of his key things was keeping the coal industry going,” she says. “I really feel like if he knew this was happening he might do something about it.”

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Rockdale resident Rebecca Vasquez says she thought the Trump administration might be able to save the coal industry.

The thing is, he tried. The administration ended regulation and backed out of environmental commitments seen as harmful to coal power. It pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord and tore up the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. None of that mattered in Rockdale. 

“It kind of puts it in perspective that [bringing back coal] is a real push,” says Garza, who thought the plant had five to 10 years left of operation. “I guess we’re going to swing toward natural gas generation to power the grid.”

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Julia Cardona, who works at a local unemployment office, says none of her clients expect Sandow to reopen.

At the local unemployment office, Julia Cardona says the clients she's helping don't expect the plant to reopen. 

“It’s just not very efficient to make electricity from coal,” she says. “We don’t even see any more rotary phones or plan on them coming back, so I kind of look at that in the same way.”

The big question now is: What jobs could replace the ones that are lost?

Talk of the town

The plant closure is all anybody seems to be talking about at Lee’s Landing, a local restaurant that boasts the “Best Burgers in Town.” At a corner table, Planning Commissioner Doug Williams and Rockdale City Council Member Joyce Dalley spend the lunch rush discussing options.

“We’ll take anything,” proprietor Lee Parsely says.

Sharon Cloud and Rockdale City Council Member Joyce Dalley talk with Lee Parsley about the Sandow plant closure and Milam County's Amazon bid at Parsley's restaurant, Lee's Landing.

Dalley says Milam County made a bid to host Amazon's second headquarters. Most people don’t think it has a chance, but they agree it’s a good way of promoting the community.

“We do have a great deal to offer,” says Dalley, including abundant land and the proximity to water and fast-growing Austin.

“If we can hold on long enough," Williams says, "Austin will be here.”

Parsley gestures to a man walking by. “He just moved from Austin,” he says. 

Anthony Fritz stops to talk. He's originally from the Northeast. First he moved to Austin, then he moved to Rockdale to enjoy the country and get away from the traffic. News that he came all the way from New York elicits some laughs from the table.

“It’s the best place,” Fritz says. “Right here.”  

But for each newcomer, townspeople fear, there are many plant workers who will need to leave.

Garza and Morgan both say they want to stay and are looking for work in the area.

“One thing I’ve noticed is most of [the jobs] are going to be lower-paying jobs than what we had here,” Garza says. “And you’re going to have to commute for them.”

“I will have to pick up and leave if it comes to that,” Morgan says. “But I don’t want to. This is my home.”

The Sandow Power Plant closes on Jan. 11.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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