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Despite Trump's Promises, Coal Plants Keep Closing


President Trump has promised again and again to bring coal jobs back. But coal-fired power plants keep closing. Since Trump took office, at least 17 plants have said they'll be shutting down. One of them is in Rockdale, Texas where Mose Buchele of member station KUT paid a visit.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Michael Morgan (ph) was off the day they announced the plant was closing, so he heard about it from a friend.

MICHAEL MORGAN: I was really in shock.

BUCHELE: The news came on Friday the 13. At first, he thought it was some kind of joke.

MORGAN: Very difficult going home on Friday the 13 and telling my wife and kids that I was done.

BUCHELE: About 450 people are going to lose their jobs at the Sandow Power Plant and nearby mine. That's not counting expected losses at over 30 subcontracting companies like the one Morgan worked for. And that's likely just the start of trouble for this small town outside of Austin.

REBECCA VASQUEZ: We're really nervous about the trickle-down effect.

BUCHELE: That's Rebecca Vasquez. She runs Lone Star Guns & Goods on Main Street. She also heads the local Chamber of Commerce. She was surprised the closures came at all, considering the coal-friendly administration in the White House.

VASQUEZ: You know, when Trump ran for president, one of his key things was keeping the coal industry going. And I really feel like if he knew this was happening, he might do something about it.

BUCHELE: The thing is, he's tried. The administration's move to roll back regulations and rejected environmental commitments harmful to coal, none of that helped save coal in Rockdale, where parts of the power plant were under 10 years old. Luminant, the company that owned the plant, blames cheap competition for the shutdown, what they call an oversupply of renewable power and low natural gas prices.

JULIA CARDONA: It's just not very efficient to make electricity from coal.

BUCHELE: Julia Cardona works at the local unemployment office down the street from the gun store. She says none of her clients expect coal jobs to come back to Rockdale.

CARDONA: You know, we don't see any more rotary phones or even plan on them coming back so I kind of look at that in the same way.

BUCHELE: The big question, what can replace these jobs?

DOUG WILLIAMS: It's the talk of the town, as you can tell.

BUCHELE: I walked into Lee's Landing restaurant looking for lunch and found myself sitting at a corner table with Planning Commissioner Doug Williams and City Council member Joyce Dalley. Williams said they were surprised by the news, especially with Trump in office.

WILLIAMS: It's hard to figure out a direction to go right now at this time, but we're working on it.

BUCHELE: Any ideas?

JOYCE DALLEY: No, I can't say I have any ideas.

BUCHELE: Though some have been put out there. This rural county's applied to host the new Amazon headquarters, something people here say is a long shot but good marketing.

DALLEY: We do have a great deal to offer.

BUCHELE: Whatever happens, everyone agrees Rockdale needs to attract more industry and employers. Michael Morgan, the worker you heard at the start of this story, says he's been looking for new jobs online and the pickings are pretty slim. He says if more jobs don't arrive, a lot of the people who worked here in coal will have to move away, including him.

MORGAN: I will have to pick up and leave if it comes to that, but I don't want to. This is my home.

BUCHELE: The Sandow Coal Power Plant shuts its doors on January 11. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Rockdale, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.