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'Who is at fault?' Probe into blackout begins

The catastrophic Texas blackout was a wider failure than the state’s power grid, which teetered on the brink of an even bigger collapse during a freeze that knocked out electricity to 4 million customers, energy executives told legislators this week.

The testimony came as lawmakers turned their attention away from budget shortfalls and the coronavirus pandemic to meet for two days focused on what led to Texans being in the dark as back-to-back winter storms brought record-breaking snow and cold.

“Any day I’m expecting the rivers to turn red and a swarm of locusts hit the state of Texas. It’s of biblical proportions,” Sen. Robert Nichols said before hearings began Thursday.

One energy CEO said he sounded a warning days before what became one of the worst power outages in U.S. history, including to the office of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose regulatory appointees came under sharp criticism during the first investigative hearing since last week’s crisis.

Leaders of other power companies said they thought the system would hold, while also acknowledging that a failure to buttress their generators against subfreezing weather contributed to the outages.

“Who is at fault?” state Rep. Todd Hunter, a Republican, demanded of witnesses during hours of testimony at the Texas Capitol.

Customers were initially told of statewide rolling blackouts — controlled outages caused by power providers — that would help the state keep up with record demand for energy. But many customers were without electricity for days afterward.

“We want to have accountability but I’m not really interested in putting someone’s hide on the barnyard door,” state Rep. Travis Clardy told the local Chamber of Commerce. “I want to know what they are doing to prepare for this coming summer.”

The state’s power grid was 4 minutes and 37 seconds away from a complete failure that could have taken weeks or months to repair, representatives from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas have said. That group is responsible for managing the state’s power grid.

Texas last faced massive blackouts caused by a major winter storm in 2011. Changes were recommended to the council that oversees electrical distribution but those recommendations apparently were not followed through.

“We kind of heard this 10 years ago and they assured us all they were going to properly winterize and make sure we weren’t going to have electric outages and it didn’t work,” Nichols said.

President Joe Biden flew to Texas on Friday, in his first visit to a major disaster site since taking office. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn on Thursday said he was drafting federal legislation that would help Texas and other states winterize their power grids.

“This legislation that I’m now talking about introducing will create a grant program so that states like Texas, including Texas won’t be caught flat-footed by a storm like this,” Cornyn told reporters Thursday.

Abbott has zeroed in almost singularly on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, accusing the state’s embattled grid operator of misleading the public about the readiness of a system that was minutes away from total collapse in the early hours of Feb. 15, when temperatures plunged and demand for electricity vastly outstripped supply.

But energy executives, including those whose companies lavishly donate to Abbott and lawmakers, made clear that the fault is far wider.

The testimony offered a troubling new look at how quickly America’s energy capital ran out of energy. Curtis Morgan, the CEO of Vistra Corp., told lawmakers at the outset that the blackouts affected plants that could have generated more power that was urgently needed. He said when officials from his company called utility providers, they were told they weren’t a priority.

“How can a power plant be at the bottom of the list of priorities?” Morgan said.

“You-know-what hit the fan, and everybody’s going, ‘You’re turning off my power plant?’” he said.

At least 40 people in Texas died as a result of the storm, and 10 days after the blackout started, more than 1 million people in the state were still under boil-water notices.

ERCOT officials have claimed that the scale of the forced blackouts — the largest in Texas history — were necessary to avert an even more catastrophic failure that would have wiped out power to most of the state’s 30 million residents for months.

“Obviously what you did didn’t work,” said Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, which had more than 1 million outages.

“It worked from keeping us (from) going into a blackout that we’d still be in today, that’s why we did it,” ERCOT president Bill Magness said. “Now it didn’t work for people’s lives, but it worked to preserve the integrity of the system.”

Among Vistra’s subsidiaries is Luminant, which operates nearly two dozen plants across Texas. Morgan blamed outdated lists of critical infrastructure in Texas for darkening gas processers and production sites as grid managers began shutting off parts of the system.

Morgan didn’t say how many of the company’s plants were turned off or for how long, but he did say the company was within three minutes of power going offline at one nuclear plant, and that the main power grid in America’s energy capital was just moments away from total collapse Feb. 15. He said he had reached out to state officials, including Abbott’s office, with concerns.

“We came dangerously close to losing the entire electric system,” Morgan said.

Of Texas’ power generators that were not operational during the storm, Magness said the freeze was responsible 42% of the failures. A lack of fuel and equipment damage unrelated to the weather also contributed, but Magness said that for 38% of the plant outages, the problem remains unclear.

Republican lawmakers pulled no punches in criticizing DeAnn Walker, chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission, who was appointed to the regulatory agency by Abbott. Several were frustrated by her claims the commission had little enforcement leverage over ERCOT.

“You are the chair, I would contend you are choosing not to leverage the authority we have given you. That is a serious problem,” Sen. Brandon Creighton said.

The outages lasted days for millions of Texas homes, and millions more lost water as water treatment plants shutdown and miles of pipes burst across the state. The toll of the storm included at least 15 hypothermia-related deaths around Houston, said Democratic state Rep. Ana Hernandez, vice chairwoman of the House State Affairs committee.

The crisis has put Texas’ power and fossil fuel industry under heavy scrutiny from lawmakers who reap millions of dollars in unlimited political contributions from energy interests, more than any other sector.

Since 2017, Vistra Energy and its political action committee has donated more than $1.4 million to Texas politicians and groups associated with both political parties, according to state campaign finance records. Lawmakers also heard early Thursday from the top executive of NRG Energy, which has donated more than $405,000 since 2017, including $30,000 to Abbott.

Staff writer Josh Edwards and Associated Press reporters Paul J. Weber and David Koenig contributed to this report.


Local
NISD maintenance, ground crews battle widespread damage

At least 20% of Nacogdoches ISD’s buildings suffered severe damage during last week’s winter storms, setting grounds and maintenance professionals within the district scrambling to battle flooding and broken equipment.

Some of the damage didn’t become apparent until days after the icy tendrils of the winter maelstrom had receded, and it might be spring before some of the destruction is fixed, said Ralph LaRue, NISD’s Facilities and Construction director.

Of NISD’s 80 buildings, 17 suffered significant damage mostly as a result of broken water lines, challenging the district’s sole plumber, Joe Lewis, to work 12-hour shifts crawling beneath campus buildings and smashing through tile and drywall to access burst piping.

“We all jumped in and did plumbing, but we only have one plumber,” LaRue told the school board Thursday night. “He’s done a tremendous job for us. He got us running before he got his own house running.”

LaRue said the district has been searching for a second plumber to join its staff but had been unable to find someone to fill the opening because of a shortage of tradespeople.

Nacogdoches High School and Brooks-Quinn-Jones Elementary School were the hardest-hit campuses. A broken coil inside a heating and air conditioning unit at the high school dumped water into a pair of classrooms at the high school, forcing maintenance staff to cut out large sections of drywall.

In the ninth grade building near the fire station, a ruptured pipe flooded a lab and hallway, LaRue said.

Both of those buildings had initially been inspected on Feb. 18 as the situation was assessed, but days of below and near-freezing temperatures meant ice plugs didn’t break free until warmer weather arrived.

Flooding in part of the competition gym at the high school means a portion of the basketball court will need to be replaced, and the entire floor will need to be refinished — a task district staff had only recently completed.

LaRue said he’d been in touch with the company working on installing the new court at Stephen F. Austin State University’s coliseum expansion about replacing the court.

“That will be a significant repair,” LaRue said.

As the mercury dipped into the single-digits early last week, a sprinkler head ruptured at Brooks-Quinn-Jones Elementary, pouring water into a multi-use area and hallways, LaRue said.

During Thursday’s board meeting, LaRue commended the quick actions of Nacogdoches fire fighters, who in the early morning hours of Feb. 16, rolled up carpets, shuffled furniture away from spreading water and began trying to push the water out of the building.

Carpenter Elementary, which was the only of the district campus to not reopen Wednesday, suffered damage to all its bathrooms, and as a result, some significant building damage.

LaRue said the staff had to break out significant sections of the school’s tile walls to get access to the broken pipes.

The district was struck another unexpected blow Wednesday when a backflow preventer at McMichael Middle School broke, interrupting the water flow and forcing the campus to close again for the rest of the week.

”McMichael was one school that didn’t have any leaks, which may have caused a problem with the backflow preventer,” he said.

Before Wednesday, the building showed no signs of damage initially, LaRue said, but clearly the preventer — a 4-inch pipe near the highway with lots of controls attached to it — suffered internal damage during the freeze.

The fluctuating pressure that comes with daily use at the campus may have been the final straw to break the device.

”This ... backflow preventer is no longer in production,” he said. “The company doesn’t exist anymore. It would’ve continued to work fine had it not been frozen. We tore the thing apart five times. We kept trying to put it together to see if we could get it to operate.”

Stephen F. Austin State University’s physical plant workers searched their inventory for parts, as did the City of Nacogdoches, but to no avail. The school had to be shuttered.

A repair kit was ordered from a location in New Hampshire, and was expected to be installed Friday. Other districts around the state seem to have suffered similar problems, LaRue said, because the only available replacement was found in Ohio and could take between a week to 10 days to be shipped to the Pineywoods.

He said hopefully the repair kit can hold until the district’s spring break from March 8 through March 12, at which point water can again be shut off to the school and the replacement installed.

A number of smaller, less trafficked building in the district were assessed for damage this week, and work to repair the damage was ongoing.

Grounds crews and janitorial staff also worked tirelessly to clean up campuses, removing truckloads of brush and debris, and the district’s nutritional staff coordinated to keep meals flowing to students even with campuses closed.

The board applauded the staff’s efforts, and praised LaRue for his leadership during the crisis, though he tried to shrug off the praise.

”The thanks goes out to the full team,” he said. “It’s certainly not me. It’s all the staff that jumped in and helped.”

Board member James Montoya summed up the praise of the workers after LaRue’s report on the damage.

”You guys are worth your weight in gold,” he said.

NISD Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo said the district would be in touch with the Texas Education Agency and the state to assess options to cover the costly repairs to ease the taxpayer’s burden.

”We will not sit idly by,” he assured the board of trustees.


Local
Mize lone candidate for Nacogdoches mayor

Banker Jimmy Mize is the lone candidate for Nacogdoches mayor after his only opponent withdrew from the May 1 race.

Current Mayor Shelley Brophy is not seeking reelection.

Former Councilman Matt Moore had filed for mayor just before the Feb. 12 deadline but a week later withdrew his candidacy. Moore ran unsuccessfully against Brophy in 2019. It was during that election that Mize served as her campaign chairman. Later, when she opted not to seek another term, she encouraged Mize to run.

“I’ve seen so many things that our community can be,” he said. “I’ve lived here almost all my life, and I’ve seen some growth. We’ve just got to push forward and combine resources and work together with Stephen F. Austin and the school district. We’ve got those leaders in place with Dr. (Stephen F. Austin State University president Scott) Gordon, Dr. (Nacogdoches ISD Superintendent Gabriel) Trujillo and Mario Canizares is going to be a wonderful city manager for us.”

A longtime Nacogdoches resident and graduate of SFA, Mize earned a graduate degree from Southern Methodist University and is the market president at Commercial Bank of Texas.

He is also frequent community volunteer, chairing the County Parks Board and serving on the Nacogdoches County Chamber board and Nacogdoches Economic Development Corp., among others.

“I’ve always wanted to be involved in city or county politics and my background with NEDCO and volunteer boards has pushed me in that direction,” he said.

Moore’s withdrawal means only city residents in the Northeast and Northwest wards will cast votes May 1.

Northwest Ward Councilwoman Amelia Fisher is facing challenger Albert Thomas Lasater, and Northeast Ward councilman Garth Hinze is running against challenger Kathleen Belanger.

Early voting is set to begin April 19.

In other May 1 races, Nacogdoches ISD voters who live in District 5, which is the northern portion of the district, will choose between incumbent Trustee Mindy Beene Winslow and challenger Tammy Spake.

Garrison ISD has called a $13 million bond election to fund a new high school and multipurpose facility. In addition, two school board seats in Garrison are up for election. Candidates filing for those seats are Matt Harris, Jennifer Honea, Bart Reneau and Jackson Sheffield.

In Chireno ISD, Michael Sanford, David Smith, Gerrie Dee Lockett and Jake Higginbotham will compete for two seats on the school board.

The cities of Garrison and Chireno will not have elections, according to the county elections office.


Coronavirus
Gordon asks state to restore higher ed funding

Stephen F. Austin State University president Dr. Scott Gordon joined other higher education leaders around Texas this week in asking Senate Finance Committee to restore funding to colleges and universities that was cut because of budget shortfalls related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Greg Abbott last year asked all state agencies to cut budgets by 5% after the pandemic shuttered businesses leading to decreased sales tax revenue and a downturn in the oil and gas market. At SFA that cut amounted to around $3.2 million, Gordon said.

“We fully understand the fiscal challenges of the state and we believe that we can and we will continue to be an economic growth engine for Texas and specifically East Texas,” Gordon told state senators during a more than six-hour hearing Tuesday.

Enrollment at the university dropped by around 2% because of the pandemic, costing the university an additional $3.8 million in tuition and fees, he said.

Federal relief helped, but can’t totally make up the shortfall.

“CARES Act funding was tremendously helpful,” Gordon said. “We had slightly over $10.5 million. Half of that went to student emergency aid and half of that went to providing budget support and classroom upgrades for technology.”

Gordon also stressed how even before the pandemic set in SFA had been working to increase flexibility and student access through steps like creating a flat tuition rate and offering eight-week accelerated courses.

“I love your innovative ideas,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Finance Committee and a former teacher.

Since 2019, average student debt for SFA graduates has decreased 31%, and freshman retention — those who return for a second year at the university — has increased from 70% to 77%, Gordon said.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, praised SFA for its use of open education resources in many courses instead of traditional textbooks. Those digital resources are often published by other colleges and universities and are available for free.

“I wish more universities would do that,” Nichols said.

Nelson, who is the Senate’s highest-ranking Republican member, also credited SFA with helping her daughter earn two master’s degrees and a doctorate. The Denton County resident said she sent her daughter to a major university after graduating from high school.

“I found out in the first week that she wasn’t going to make it in a big college,” she said, so she called the then-president of SFA. “Stephen F. Austin was such a nurturing environment for her.”

The university has long been “laser focused on student access and success,” Gordon said, noting that 70% of its graduates are considered at-risk — meaning they are most likely to drop out because of certain mitigating factors.

“I believe it’s clear that SFA benefits the East Texas community and the state of Texas by providing high quality, accessible and affordable education,” Gordon said.


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