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Luminant to lay off 160 workers, shutter Martin Lake mining operation

Luminant Mining will lay off 160 workers the day after Christmas from its Liberty Mine and Martin Lake Mining Complex in Tatum, according to a Texas Workforce Commission notice issued Wednesday.

Dallas-based Luminant will cease operations at the lignite mine and lay off additional workers at its Martin Lake Beckville Mine and the Martin Lake Railroad. Employees affected by the closure are being laid off in accordance with a collective bargaining agreement between Luminant and IBEW Local No. 2337.

“As Luminant has planned for some time, the Liberty Mine that provided lignite to the Martin Lake Power Plant since 2014 will be closing by the end of 2021,” Luminant spokesman Kyle Weeks said in a statement. “The estimated 160-170 employees impacted were informed earlier this year. They are being provided severance benefits including lump sum cash payments based on service years, additional payments to help offset COBRA expenses, as well as outplacement services. Employees are also being made aware of other open positions within the company.”

Weeks said the Liberty Mine closure was a part of the company’s “long-term fuel plan.” The nearby Martin Lake Power Plant now will operate on coal from the Powder River Basin, which spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.

“Luminant deeply thanks and appreciates the men and women who’ve worked at Liberty and their dedication to powering Texas,” Weeks wrote.

Luminant operates the Liberty coal mine and Martin Lake Power Plant in Tatum. The plant was established in the late 1970s and generates enough electricity to power more than 450,000 homes, according to Luminant.

“This is a difficult but necessary action, and we are fully committed to treating our people well and supporting their transition,” Ogletree wrote.

More information about the closure was unavailable Wednesday.

Luminant closed its Oak Hill lignite mine south of Longview in December 2016. The company said at the time that the closure was because of coal-fired plants losing market share to more efficient gas-power plants and struggles to meet environmental regulations, leading to less demand for coal.

The closure resulted in layoffs of 132 employees.

Luminant announced plans in October 2020 to build a new solar farm on the site of the retired Oak Hill mine and on the west side of Martin Lake Power Plant.

The plans for the solar farm were part of a wider push by Luminant for more renewable energy, the company said at the time.

The new solar facility is expected to go online in 2022 in the Texas Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) market and will be 200 megawatts, the company said previously.

The Longview area is not part of ERCOT.

World War II veteran, East Texas pastor credits longevity to faith in Christ, perseverance
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BIG SANDY — East Texas resident Jack Hetzel has done a lot in his nearly 100 years — served in five major World War II campaigns, met presidents, written books and preached hundreds or sermons — and he said he owes it all to his savior.

“I believe I’m going to go to 112 (years old), but I’m ready to go anytime,” he said this week. “God has been so good to me to live 100 years.”

Hetzel, pastor at Big Sandy United Methodist Church for about the past seven years, will turn 100 on Nov. 18. He said his looking forward to his centennial, and he expects to feel great.

His eldest granddaughter organized an early celebration Saturday at the Big Sandy Civic Center, where an estimated 140 people honored Hetzel.

“I’ve had the privilege of attending birthday parties of high-profile people. Those were, shall I say, a silhouette of what I had Saturday,” he said.

Hetzel’s family tree includes a son and daughter, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren. His first wife Lilian, a native of England, died years ago. The couple also had a 6-year-old son who died in a car crash.

Longevity runs in Hetzel’s family. His mother, Nettie, lived to be 104 years old, and he said she was known for saying what was on her mind.

Hetzel lives in Big Sandy with his second wife, Patsy, who is 88. The pair have been married 12 years, and he often asks people to introduce him as “Pat’s husband.”

“I needed to marry a younger woman to keep up with me,” he said.

Hetzel’s 20-year military service began in World War II as a private in the Army Air Corps. He started in England, and his unit traveled to Normandy just after D-Day on June 6, 1944, when the Allied forces invaded northern France by landing on the beaches.

He recalled being a 150-pound, wiry young man in the service.

His unit provided air cover for Army Gen. George S. Patton. Hetzel was a part of five major battles in the war in Europe with the Battle of the Bulge being his last.

“We were way down in the Czech border when we heard we were no longer in war,” Hetzel said. “The last aircraft surrendered to my unit.”

He reenlisted into the Air Corps in 1946, but he found a school he wanted to be a part of in the Army. He took typing two hours a day and later ended up teaching administration classes.

Hetzel spent the last 14 years of his military service in the Army. He recalled preaching three sermons a week during that time and said he often preached in place of the chaplains.

“After being in the military, I finally agreed with God that it was time for me to preach,” Hetzel said.

He served at many churches before coming to Big Sandy United Methodist just shy of his 94th birthday.

“If God puts something into a person, why would you retire from it? I don’t minister; I am a minister. I don’t like to vacate. I like to do what I’m doing,” he said.

Despite his church’s small congregation, he reaches thousands through Facebook and through his daily emailed devotional messages.

He preaches at 9 a.m. on Sundays. He and Patsy head over to another church to attend that service to learn about other people.

“How I am going to learn about other people if I don’t associate with them? I do this to learn,” Hetzel said.

He’s authored eight books with two more soon going to print, and he’s hugged Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He even told the elder Bush that he would be president one day as Bush ran for U.S. Senate in 1964.

“You may not be senator, but you will be president of the United States,” Hetzel said. “He was the best-equipped man to be president.”

He said he and his wife were close with President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush.

Several years ago, Hetzel traveled with other veterans as part of the Brookshire’s and Super 1 Foods Heroes Flight to Washington, D.C. As the group made the rounds to various landmarks, Hetzel said people wanted to talk to or take a photo with him at every stop.

Across the decades of his life, Hetzel said he’s enjoyed being able to communicate with anyone.

“I like the idea that it doesn’t matter what a person’s level is in life, I can converse with (them) on a sensible basis,” he said.

He’s also known for hardly ever saying a negative word.

“I’d rather give some reasons to get it right than talk about what’s wrong,” Hetzel said. “If we talk about our sickness or somebody’s sickness, the body starts to develop that in our life.”

He is also a big proponent of not giving up, noting the examples of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers who, despite many attempts, kept going until they found success.

“They wouldn’t give up until they accomplished it,” he said. “I say erase every ‘can’t’ in your life.”

He referenced Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.”

And the nearly 100-year-old man said he has some goals he would yet like to accomplish to help Big Sandy and its residents. He wants to see a Whataburger come to the area and a place that serves breakfast around the clock.

“I want these things not just for me, but for the town,” he said.

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At State of City address, Longview mayor highlights past year's achievements
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The theme for Mayor Andy Mack’s State of the City address Wednesday reflected on the choices that everyone must make on a daily basis.

Mack opened his seventh address to the city at Holiday Inn Longview and Infinity Event Center by reviewing how previous addresses have run and the themes that made them memorable.

That led to him asking attendees to think about the decisions that brought them to Wednesday’s event — from small choices such as picking which pair of shoes to wear to major decisions such as who to marry or what career path to take.

“At some point, you chose to live, work and play in Longview. You chose to pursue careers and take jobs with great, community-minded organizations,” Mack said.

Mack referenced O.H. Methvin, who had to choose to sell 100 acres of land to the railroad to found the city of Longview.

Mack utilized an interactive poll throughout his address in which attendees could voice their opinions on a number of “this or that” scenarios he presented. They could be accessed by either a web link or through a text, and the results were shown live on screens throughout the event.

He started off posing questions such as “beaches or mountains,” “coffee or tea” and “dogs or cats.” Eventually, the polls asked more weighty questions.

Mack said the purpose of asking these types of questions to the audience was to illustrate the choices elected officials have had to make throughout history and how, sometimes, the right answer isn’t always as clear cut as “this or that.”

“I want to acknowledge those decisions that our predecessors got right, and I want to look forward to some decisions that we’ll be asked to make in the coming years,” he said.

One prompt asked attendees whether they would rather reconstruct streets, sidewalks and landscapes at a higher cost and longer inconvenience time, or quickly finish the work with less quality, money and disruption. More than 80% of participates went with the first option, which is what the city chose, as well, Mack said.

The mayor then transitioned into speaking about the cultivation and growth of downtown Longview, talking about the efforts to redo downtown streets including Green, Center, Fredonia, Tyler and now Methvin.

“Who would have ever thought we would have axe throwing in downtown Longview?” Mack said. “How about locally made coffee and beer and ice cream? Restaurants, skate shops, museums, ArtWalk and all that helped make downtown ... a thriving hub.”

Mack also spoke about the process of transforming the former Petroleum Building on East Whaley Street into Alton Plaza apartments. He said the decision to loan $600,000 to investors who had a vision for the building, and had put up $10 million of their own private funding, served as another catalyst for revitalization of downtown.

Mack also spoke at length about February’s winter storm, highlighting the various efforts that city employees made to ensure residents were safe and with power, water and other amenities.

He also spoke about the COVID-19 pandemic, telling attendees that new virus cases have decreased by 83% in Longview and Gregg County during the past 60 days.

Mack then gave a disclaimer before the next poll, prefacing it by saying, “Now don’t get upset about this question, OK? This is fun.”

That poll asked audience members if they chose to get the COVID-19 vaccine or not. Mack said there was no right or wrong answer and that “everyone has to make the best decision for themselves, based on their own personal experiences.”

Seventy-seven percent of participates indicated that they had received the vaccine, with 23% saying they had not.

The mayor also highlighted the growth that both Longview hospitals have experienced. Longview Regional Medical Center recently completing a $4.4 million enhancement of its heart and vascular institute.

Meanwhile, Christus Good Shepherd began operations in October at its $8.5 million Heart and Vascular Institute

Christus also announced a $35 million investment to expand Christus Good Shepherd North Park.

Mack emphasized the importance of the city investing in other types of business to reduce dependence on any one sector.

That led him to speak about the positive impact sports tourism has had on the city.

Lear Park will complete its fifth and final phase by the end of the year, with Mack saying it is the “premiere sports tourism destination in all of East Texas.”

He said that, this year alone, sports tourism has had more than a $5.9 million economic impact on Longview. Since completion in 2005, Lear Park has created an economic impact of more than $100 million, he added.

“That’s not a bad investment on a $12 million project, wouldn’t you say?” he said.

Mack ended his address by speaking on some of the business projects planned in the city.

Aviagen, a company that produces genetic hatching for chickens, will be in the Longview Business Park. A Gap Inc. distribution center also is planned for the Longview Business Park.

Mack said the city will have one of seven Gap Inc. distribution centers in the country.

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Federal judge overrules governor's ban on school mask mandates
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A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules.

The order comes after a monthslong legal dispute between parents, a disability rights organization and Texas officials over whether the state was violating the 1990 law, known as the ADA, by not allowing school districts to require masks. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel barred Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing Abbott’s order.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” Yeakel said. “Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital’s intensive-care unit.”

The judge said the governor’s order impedes children with disabilities from the benefits of public schools’ programs, services and activities to which they are entitled.

The advocacy group, Disability Rights Texas, filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of several Texan families in late August against Abbott, Paxton and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. It states that the governor’s order and the TEA’s enforcement of it deny children with disabilities access to public education as they are at high risk of illness and death from the virus.

Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said in a statement that the court found that Texas is not above federal law and state officials cannot prevent school districts from providing accommodations to students who are especially vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19.

“No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won’t have to,” Rogers said.

Rogers said she doesn’t rule out the state appealing the decision in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because the state has done so before, most recently with its new law that bans abortions after as early as six weeks.

The TEA, Paxton and Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In court documents, Ryan Kercher, the attorney representing the state, argued that neither of them — the attorney general nor the state education agency — were enforcing the executive order so they couldn’t be sued.

But Disability Rights Texas attorneys said the three were enforcing the order and provided the court with a letter that the TEA sent to the attorney general’s office. In it, the education agency listed school districts that appeared to be operating in violation of the governor’s order. The plaintiffs also noted how Paxton sued several school districts over requiring masks and sent “threatening” letters to districts telling them that they were violating the order.

Among those Texas districts sued by the state was Longview ISD. The lawsuit sought a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction to stop the district from enforcing its mask mandate that was issued in August.

However, Longview ISD announced Monday that it would end its mask rule next week because of a continuing decline of COVID-19 cases in the district.

The status of the lawsuits against Longview as well as suits against other Texas school districts was unclear after Wednesday’s ruling.

Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice have weighed in with a formal statement in this case. They argued that the banning of mask mandates in Texas public schools keeps disabled children from accessing in-person classes during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. They also argued that Texas schools can’t merely rely on online classes to avoid violating the ADA. Instead, the federal agency contends, Texas schools must offer disabled students every available class option.

Disability Rights Texas accused Texas of violating the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, which forbids organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.

The case was filed and heard while Texas schools had more coronavirus cases in the first two months of the school year than they did in the entire 2020-21 school year.

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is also investigating the TEA after finding the state agency’s guidance prohibiting mask mandates in schools may be “preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities.”