News

2010’s top news: Luminant vs. Alcoa, GOP, hospital woes

Velocita vanishes; car-train wreck claims lives of three young boys
By MIKE BROWN
Reporter Editor


Some of the 300-member jury pool file out of 20th District Courtroom on first day of Alcoa-Luminant trial, the top story of 2010 for Rockdale area. Luminant won big. 
Reporter/Mike Brown Some of the 300-member jury pool file out of 20th District Courtroom on first day of Alcoa-Luminant trial, the top story of 2010 for Rockdale area. Luminant won big. Reporter/Mike Brown I t wasn’t O. J., but it’ll do for a Milam County show trial. Biggest news story of 2010 was a three-week early summer clash of industrial heavyweights who threw every punch they could think of at each other in the 20th District Courtroom.

In the end it was Luminant over Alcoa by a knockout. The jury didn’t believe Alcoa had been damaged by the energy company in the months leading up to closure of Alcoa’s Rockdale Operations smelter.

Jurors not only refused to award Alcoa hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, they ordered the aluminum company to pay Luminant $10 million, something the energy company hadn’t even sought.

There was plenty more news in the year just past, of course.

Richards Memorial Hospital slipped into yet another financial crisis as the company which had managed it for four years cratered. For a couple of months it appeared there was a chance a “green technology effort” could bring thousands of jobs to the site of Rockdale Operations.

Velocita announced the vision in October, then announced the proposed land purchase had fallen through in December.

Politics provided news in 2010. Milam County Republicans had their best showing since Civil War reconstruction in November, winning four of seven contested races, including the county judge’s post.

SHOW TRIAL—Alcoa claimed it was damaged by Luminant in two ways, that power outages and mismangement at Sandow 4 cost Alcoa “outrageous” prices for energy and led to the shutdown of the first three units of Rockdale Operations.


No doubt about the most tragic day of 2010. Three young boys died in car-train collision May 24 east of Rockdale. Trooper Erik Gaston conferred with shocked train crew at the scene. No doubt about the most tragic day of 2010. Three young boys died in car-train collision May 24 east of Rockdale. Trooper Erik Gaston conferred with shocked train crew at the scene. Alcoa also maintained it was hurt by the ultimate cost of installing anti-pollution controls at Unit 4, a project in which Alcoa was ordered to pay 83 percent of the bill.

Key moment in the trial was the cross-examination of John Thuestad—the Alcoa executive who “pulled the trigger” on the decision to close the first three potlines—by Luminant attorney Barry Barnett. Barnett got Thuestad to admit the power company had followed through on all its contract commitments and that Alcoa never paid the often cited figures of $2,000 to $4,000 per megawatt hour during Unit 4 outages.

Don Broeils of Fluor testified the increase in costs on the antipollution project were not the result of negligence by Luminant and that he did not believe a different design—Alcoa’s legal position—would have satisfied the federal judge who ordered the project.


Gift of the year, Claude Hendrickson of Dixie Contractors bought a fire truck for the Milano VFD. Gift of the year, Claude Hendrickson of Dixie Contractors bought a fire truck for the Milano VFD. RMH—A s 2010 daw ned it appeared Richards Memorial was in great shape since its “rescue” four years ago by Austin-based Blackhawk Healthcare.

As late as February, Blackhawk was still planning on building either a new clinic or hospital.

In May things began to fall apart with changes in Blackhawk personnel and company focus.

On the last of July came the “Midsummer Massacre” as Blackhawk fired 15 to 20 percent of RMH’s employees, a total of between 30 and 40 jobs.

Physician contracts were not being renewed with several established specialists affected.


Kevin Owens (foreground), new owner of Blackhawk Healthcare, told Rockdale Hospital District board members he bought the failing company to keep it from closing Richards Memorial Hospital. Kevin Owens (foreground), new owner of Blackhawk Healthcare, told Rockdale Hospital District board members he bought the failing company to keep it from closing Richards Memorial Hospital. By November, Blackhawk was in full-f ledged crisis, closing its hospital in Bastrop and the rumor mill had RMH on the closing hit list within the week.

But Blackhawk’s four top executives resigned and, later that month, Kevin Owens of Georgetown purchased the company, vowing to keep RMH open.

POLITICS—Dave Barkemeyer, former Cameron mayor, unseated incumbent County Judge Frank Summers in the November general election to key the GOP’s big night.

Republicans also won three of four justice of the peace races including one shocker.

Andy Isaacs of Milano defeated Twila Harris of Rockdale for the Precinct 3 position. Harris had served in that job for 25 years and was the longest-serving elected official in Milam County.


New faces as District Judge Ed Magre (L) swore in Milam Justices of the Peace Saturday: (L-R) Andy Isaacs, Precinct 3; Rick Gommert, Precinct 1; Gary Northcott, Precinct 2; Sam Berry, Precinct 2. Isaacs, Gommert and Berry are Republicans, Northcott a Democrat. 
Reporter/Marie Bakken New faces as District Judge Ed Magre (L) swore in Milam Justices of the Peace Saturday: (L-R) Andy Isaacs, Precinct 3; Rick Gommert, Precinct 1; Gary Northcott, Precinct 2; Sam Berry, Precinct 2. Isaacs, Gommert and Berry are Republicans, Northcott a Democrat. Reporter/Marie Bakken BAD DAY—There’s no doubt what the worst day of 2010 was.

On May 24, a car-train collision east of Rockdale claimed the lives of three young boys, nineyear old Monterious Hancox, eight-year-old Ahkeem Williams and Ki’ade Hancox, 4.

Driver Terrilynn Williams, 40, sustained serious injuries.

The year just past had a little of everything, a two-night music festival attended by 25,000, contentious city council meetings, creation of a new Municipal Development District.

Here’s a week-by-week rundown of The Reporter’s major headlines during 2010:


Event of the year was the two-night Nocturnal Fest which drew crowds estimated at 25,000 to Apache Pass northwest of Rockdale. Event of the year was the two-night Nocturnal Fest which drew crowds estimated at 25,000 to Apache Pass northwest of Rockdale. JANUARY—Blackhawk Healthcare bid $ 822,000 to purchase Richards Memorial Hospital facilities.... Doug Calame was elected to the Rockdale City Council in a special election to replace Griffin Rogers.

FEBRUARY—Mike Hoyt was named officer- of-the-year as the Rockdale Police Department held its annual awards banquet....James Birkhead announced he was stepping down as Rockdale ISD school board president after 15 years in the position.

MARCH— Frank Summers defeated Chip Dunsmoor to win the Democratic nomination for Milam County Judge.... Jim Hightower, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, was the featured speaker as hundreds attended the fourth annual Tejas Art & Book Festival in downtown Rockdale.... Anti-pollution work was over at Luminant’s Sandow 4 and the temporary labor force was leaving town.


A huge, and emotional, reunion of Rockdale High School Big Blue Band members in August at The Ranch drew former directors (L-R) Don Thoede, Bill Grusendorf and Jim Perry. A huge, and emotional, reunion of Rockdale High School Big Blue Band members in August at The Ranch drew former directors (L-R) Don Thoede, Bill Grusendorf and Jim Perry. APRIL—A developer told the Rockdale Cit y Council a littleknown “inner loop” appearing on the city’s master plan was complicating plans....A crowd backing teacher-coach Wendy King attended a Milano ISD school board meeting. After a 4-1/2-hour executive session, King’s contract was renewed.... Rockdale got another temporary economic boost as Sandow Unit 5 went down for a maintenance project that drew 425 workers to town.... Relay for Life of Milam County raised $42,145 for cancer research and education in an event at Tiger Field...One of Milam County’s most bizarre criminal cases came to a surprise end when Father Stephen Valenta, a revered 84-year-old Catholic priest from Staten Island, pleaded “no contest” to sex-related charges against him and accepted five years of deferred adjudication probation. The allegations, by a female family member, were over incidents in Rockdale....Associated Training Facilities, the largest heavy equipment training provider in the United States, announced plans to open a facility in Rockdale.... The 11th annual Dewberry Jam 5K Run-Walk drew 180 participants and raised $7,000 for Alpha Tau Delta’s ongoing efforts to spruce up local parks.

MAY— Several members, and coaches, from the 1976 Rockdale Tiger state championship football team, attended a benefit for team member Garry White, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. White passed away in October... Hundreds of persons attended a model plane f ly-in at Fair Park, which raised $ 2,000 for M. D. Anderson Cancer Research Center in memory of the late Ernie Cates Sr....Voters overwhelmingly created a new Municipal Development District, to be funded by sales tax money formerly collected by the Rockdale Hospital District....Big changes at City Hall. Rockdale elected Larry Don Jones mayor after incumbent John Shoemake decided not to run again. Toby Johnson defeated incumbent Tom Fisher by 10 votes in a west ward race. Joyce Dalley won an east-ward race to replace J. T. Talley who passed up the ballot... Lee Jenkins was named president of the Rockdale ISD school board, succeeding James Birkhead.

JUNE—“Extra-inning” in talks in Cincinnati, Ohio, produced a contract between Alcoa and United Steel Workers....Rockdale police were warning a state funding decision could result in local 911 emergency calls being routed to Cameron.

JULY—Demolition of Sandow Power Plant Units 1, 2 and 3, which provided power to Alcoa’s Rockdale Operations for 52 years, was pronounced complete. A repor t by Workforce Solution of Central Texas found that more than half the employees laid off by Alcoa when it shut down the Rockdale Operations smelter in 2008 were either working again or in job training programs.... Chief Deputy Sheriff Ted Retchloff of Rockdale retired after a 33-year career in law enforcement, much of it drug enforcement. (Retchloff later accepted an interim position as Cameron police chief.)

AUGUST—Blackhawk Health Care cut the staff at Richards Memorial Hospital by “15 to 20 percent,” a figure that translates to between 30 and 40 employees. In subsequent months, contracts with several physicians were not renewed.... Rockdale’s junior-high, intermediate and elementary campuses were ranked “recognized” in the annual Texas Education Association (TEA) ratings. Rockdale High School, and the district as a whole, were rated “recognized.”....A proposal to extend city water and sewer service to the new ATS training facility died for lack of a second in a Rockdale City Council meeting....A day-long reunion of Rockdale High School Big Blue Band members drew an estimated 450 to The Ranch, along with former directors Bill Grusendorf, Don Thoede and Jim Perry.... Milam County commissioners were proposing a one-cent drop in the county tax rate, from 61 to 60 cents, but a large crowd attending a public tax hearing asked them to drop the rate by five cents.

SEPTEMBER—Eleven persons were arrested in a major drug sting centering on Rockdale....Rockdale ISD trustees approved a $1.2135 tax rate for the third straight year....City council members voted to extend water and sewer lines to the ATS training facility, reversing a nonaction the previous month....Council members okayed a 66.27-cent city tax rate, same as the previous year.... The two-night Nocturnal Fest music festival at Apache Pass drew a total crowd estimated at 25,000 and provided an estimated $200,000 economic boom for Rockdale businesses. Law enforcement agencies said at least 50 drug and alcoholrelated arrests were made during the weekend....The fifth Run For the Kay 5-kilometer run/walk, grossed $3,000 toward restoration of the Rockdale landmark....More than 70 persons marched in a “Stop Suicide” walk at Tiger Field in memory of RHS students Benjamin Pelzel and Justin Bailey....Commissioners adopted a 60-cent tax rate, down one cent from the previous rate, during a meeting that featured a heated exchange between County Judge Frank Summers and frequent commissioners court visitor Wayne Horkheimer.

OCTOBER—Kathryn Dodd was selected Miss Rockdale Fair Queen 2010. First runner-up was Katie Strelsky and Britta Byrd was second runner-up. The Rockdale Fair’s youth livestock auction brought $218,200, a new record; headliners Easton Corbin and the Bellamy Brothers drew a two-night crowd of 15,000; Preston Dorman of the Rockdale Junior FFA showed the grand champion steer....Velocita announced it was negotiating with Alcoa to purchase 11,000 acres at Rockdale Operations for a green next-generation, high-tech community.... International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2078 mines and power plant bargaining units approved new contracts with Luminant.

NOVEMBER—Biggest night in modern history for Milam County Republicans as the GOP won its first county-level races since Reconstruction. Dave Barkemeyer defeated incumbent Frank Summers for county judge and Republicans won four of the seven contested countylevel races....Rockdale Hospital District directors “had not ruled out” re-imposing a property tax as Richards Memorial Hospital slid into yet another financial crisis.... In a split vote, during a contentious city council session, council members approved a continuation of the annual contract designating the Chamber of Commerce to managerhotel motel tax funds....Rockdale area veterans were honored in Veterans Day observances at all four Rockdale ISD campuses....The four-member management team of Blackhawk Health Care resigned and the company was purchased by Kevin Owens of Georgetown who vowed to keep Richards Memorial Hospital open.

DECEMBER—Rockdale’s night Christmas parade moved to Saturday and drew a record crowd estimated at 2,000...A prankster with a cell phone called in a fake “intruder with a gun” threat to Rockdale High School, locking down the campus for an hour....Velocita CEO Doug Hutchison announced he could not reach a land-puchase deal with Alcoa and that the next-generation green community would not be coming to Rockdale....A 31-year-old Rockdale High School coach resigned after he was arrested in connection with a sexual relationship with an 18- year-old female student.


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