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Ashby, Nichols taking landfill fight to Texas Legislature

Local representatives in the state Legislature are drafting legislation to keep a Montana-based company from constructing an oil and gas waste landfill in the headwaters of Sam Rayburn Reservoir.

The PA Prospect Company is applying for a permit with the Texas Railroad Commission in hopes of building a non-hazardous oil and gas waste facility at the intersection of state Highway 103 and County Road 4305 — which is about a mile and half from Highway 96.

State Rep. Trent Ashby and Sen. Robert Nichols are drafting a legislative proposal that would require the Texas Railroad Commission to put a greater emphasis on protecting water quality in their permitting process.

“We have closely monitored the ongoing proposal for a waste facility in San Augustine County,” a joint statement by the representatives said.

“We share the concerns that have been voiced by hundreds of our constituents, and have expressly asked the Railroad Commission of Texas to reject this application on the grounds that it threatens the integrity of our most cherished natural resource.”

This proposal will be submitted in the next legislative session, which is slated to begin in January 2021.

Because of the actions of San Augustine residents, hundreds have submitted letters begging the commission not to grant the permit. The facility would be built on top of Chinquapin Creek, which feeds into Sam Rayburn Reservoir.

However, during a public meeting in Sabine County, Jim Wright, who is running for a spot on the railroad commission, told attendees that their protests likely would not do much to stop this facility from being permitted. The RRC is required to make sure the applications submitted are administratively correct, but the permit won’t be stopped unless an engineer or the geologist can prove that the facility presents a risk to the environment.

The company said the facility will only process non-hazardous waste and the waste would not leak from the infrastructure put in place.

However, residents of San Augustine don’t believe any system is fail-safe and are worried about what will happen in the future if the facility is not well maintained. Additionally, it presents a quality of life issue, especially for those living just down the street from the facility, one resident, Ann Bridges, said.

JESS HUFF/The Lufkin Daily News 

The sun sets over Sam Rayburn Reservoir on a night in July. The PA Prospect Company is applying for a permit with the Texas Railroad Commission in hopes of building an oil and gas waste landfill in the headwaters of Sam Rayburn Reservoir.

Geoffrey Reeder, a soil scientist and retired environmental remediations manager from San Augustine, and his wife Ellen, a geologist and former regulator for the state of Louisiana, were approached by R.D. Griffin and asked to review the company’s application.

“Maybe if we have the support of our senator or state representative saying, ‘You’ve gotta listen to what these people say,’ maybe that will help,” Geoffery Reeder said. “We’ve both been in the business of reviewing reports just like that for years.”

Reeder and his wife noticed both large and simple mistakes in the application. PA Prospect misnamed maps, used wrong figures and had water flowing the wrong direction, Reeder said. As a soil scientist, he noticed the company failed to discuss huge sand lenses — which are areas that people will use for water wells — in several areas of the report, he said.

“I thought it was egregious enough — I was a professional geoscientist in Texas before I retired — so I wrote a letter to the Texas Board of Geoscientists and I complained about this firm that did that,” Reeder said. “I said, ‘Look at this, they’re wrong.’ I don’t know if they made a mistake or did it on purpose. The outcome is the same; this report is not indicative of conditions at the site.”

Reeder is concerned about the waste flowing into the creek and having that flow downhill into the reservoir, but also about it seeping into the sand lenses where it would mound into the groundwater.

“It’s going to go out beyond the perimeter of the landfill,” Ellen Reeder said.

Additionally, the amount of truck usage of the highway is not only going to result in a lot of noise for residents, but lead to the degradation of their roads.

The company’s attorney told residents to expect between 10 and 50 trucks a day to the facility, Reeder said. However, with the facility expanding across state Highway 103, Reeder sees it being more likely that this will cause three times the damage.

He reasoned that the trucks have to enter and leave the facility, but also some trucks will have to enter one side of the facility, cross the highway to the other facility and then leave from there, too.

“Ten trucks go in, ten trucks go out. So it’s not ten trucks on the road, it’s twenty trucks on the road,” he said. “If half of those trucks have solids to go in the landfill, well the truck’s gotta go across the road to the landfill, so lets say half of them. There’s five trucks going across the road, five trucks have got to come back across the road, so ten trucks is really thirty trucks, and fifty trucks is really one-hundred-fifty trucks.”

Book Buddies event brings Lufkin's youngest reading fanatics together
JOEL ANDREWS/The Lufkin Daily News 

Christian Nash, 8, was there to browse, looking for fantasy books in particular, at the Book Buddies of Deep East Texas distribution event in the Chestnut Village shopping center Friday. The event continues today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 533 S. Chestnut St.

Some of Lufkin’s youngest reading fanatics took the opportunity to expand their personal libraries on the first day of the Book Buddies of Deep East Texas distribution event on Friday.

The organization pulled together 60,000 books to accommodate students in need of some good reading material for the summer. Kids were able to pick six books apiece, free of charge.

Fourteen-year-old Jakeia McQueen loves books like “Twilight,” but doesn’t have a favorite genre by any means. She was looking at Brian Jacques’ novel “Pearls of Lutra.”

JOEL ANDREWS/The Lufkin Daily News 

Correena Kennedy, 10, peruses the selection of books at the Book Buddies of Deep East Texas distribution event in the Chestnut Village shopping center Friday. The event continues from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at 533 S. Chestnut St.

“I like to take my time to read,” she said. “I like reading because it makes my vocabulary get better.”

It also helps her improve her imagination, she said. Sometimes she catches herself daydreaming about “stupid stuff,” she said. But when she’s been reading, her daydreams are more about the books.

Book Buddies founder Diana Anderson came in from Houston to help the event move forward. She emphasized the importance of not only keeping kids reading to prevent the “summer slide,” but also allowing children to pick their own books so they’ll be more interested in reading them.

JOEL ANDREWS/The Lufkin Daily News 

Some of Lufkin’s youngest reading fanatics took the opportunity to expand their personal libraries on the first day of the Book Buddies of Deep East Texas distribution event on Friday. The event continues from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at 533 S. Chestnut St.

Eight-year-old Christian Nash was there to browse, but she was looking for fantasy books in particular — although she is not a big Harry Potter fan. She’d picked up “Junie B. Jones Has a Monster Under Her Bed” and “The Stories Julian Tells.”

The organization usually holds the event during the school year to ensure kids get access to the books. Because COVID-19 shut schools down after spring break, the organization wasn’t able to do the same thing this year, so they got creative.

In an old shop in the Chestnut Village shopping center, books were stacked on tables lined around the room. Adult and child volunteers stood ready to offer recommendations and assistance where they could.

“There’s not many opportunities for younger kids to donate their time,” Anderson said. “So this is their chance.”

Ten-year-old Lane Saxton was there to volunteer, she is an avid reader and had read a large chunk of the books available.

JOEL ANDREWS/The Lufkin Daily News 

Book Buddies of Deep East Texas pulled together 60,000 books to distribute, free of charge, to students in need of some good reading material for the summer on Friday. The event continues from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at 533 S. Chestnut St. in Lufkin.

“I love reading,” she said. “It’s relaxing. If I need a peaceful moment I’ll go to my room and I’ll read. I just really enjoy it.”

Her favorite books are the Harry Potter series and she’d love to go to Harry Potter World; it’s on her wish list.

As a volunteer, she has learned that not everybody has the same opportunities she has. She said it’s important to volunteer and to donate stuff you don’t use anymore.

“You’ve got to be kind,” she said. “Not everybody is as fortunate as we are. So you have to give away stuff you’re not playing with anymore. If you’re not playing with something, don’t just throw it away, because there are a bunch of people who would probably love to have it.”

Health district reports 41 new cases of COVID-19

The Angelina County & Cities Health District reported 41 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday.

This brings the total number of positive tests in Angelina County, including those from the Diboll Prison Unit and the Rufus H. Duncan Geriatric Prison Facility in Diboll, to 1,994.

The health district is reporting 1,647 positive tests, 860 recoveries and 14 deaths. The Angelina County Emergency Management COVID-19 page lists the same number of positives and recoveries, as well as 787 active cases and 31 deaths.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is reporting 1,134 active cases, 32 deaths and 401 recoveries as of 4:55 p.m. Thursday.

The New York Times’ national, city-based data set says Angelina County is on a downward trend for new cases, with an average of 32 new cases daily. This is down from the week of July 13, when the Times said Angelina County had an average of 67 new cases daily.

The Times has not updated its information for Lufkin since Wednesday, and still lists the city as No. 13 for the highest number of new deaths in the last two weeks.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is reporting 11 active offender cases and nine offender recoveries at the Diboll Unit. They also list three active employee cases. There are 472 offenders on medical restriction and 15 in medical isolation.

The Duncan Unit has four active offender cases and 269 recoveries. There are also nine active employee cases and 42 recoveries. No one is on medical restriction, but four people are in medical isolation.

Numbers reported by the Texas Department of Public Safety will fluctuate because they represent an active count rather than a historical count.

The Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council is reporting 13 confirmed coronavirus cases in the intensive care unit and two suspected cases. They are taking up 30.6% of ICU beds available. They also report 39 confirmed coronavirus cases in general isolation with two suspected cases. They are taking up 26.1% of the general beds.

There are 18 COVID-19 patients utilizing ventilators and 27 total adult ventilators in use.

The health district reports 659 positive cases in Polk County with 192 recoveries and one death. In San Augustine, the health district is reporting 155 positive cases, 115 recoveries and 12 deaths.

Statewide, there have been 412,107 cases reported, 6,274 fatalities, 260,542 estimated recoveries and 145,291 estimated active cases. There were 8,800 new cases on Thursday and 322 newly reported fatalities.

Will coronavirus dim the Friday Night Lights of Texas high school football?

ALEDO — In this town of 4,600, home to the Bearcats and a well of pride that has withered lesser teams, Tim Buchanan, aka Coach Buc, watched his players arrive at the stadium before first light. It is like this every year: cleats hitting turf, shouted drills and the promise of another state title in December.

Aledo has come to expect this. The Bearcats have won a record nine championships, most recently last year. They are the town’s joy and occasional agony, the reason business slows Fridays as residents — even those without a child on the team — swagger into the 9,000-seat stadium. But as players took the field this week, they heard an unlikely command from Coach Buc:

“Cover that nose up!”

Those words didn’t sound natural echoing out over the artificial turf, but this pandemic season of face masks, social distancing and temperature checks is changing — perhaps even endangering — the hallowed rhythms of Texas football. College scholarships, bragging rights and futures hang in the balance, to say nothing of mascots and autumn romances.

“I was nervous we weren’t going to play,” said Jaedon Pellegrino, 18, a senior and wide receiver whose younger brother is a teammate and whose family moved to Aledo from Yorba Linda, California, about six years ago.

As debate raged nationwide over whether and how schools will resume, some states canceled high school football or, like California, postponed it until winter. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has pushed for classes to start in August, and although some local health authorities have refused, football will return. As Hall of Fame Cowboy’s Coach Tom Landry said, “Football is to Texas what religion is to a priest,” and nothing is as revered as the high school version made famous by “Friday Night Lights.”

To save the season, rules have been adjusted, schedules altered. Texas leads the nation in high school football participation, with about 170,000 players, plus associated cheer squads and marching bands like Aledo’s award-winning Bearcat Regiment. It could all be imperiled if players start testing positive for the coronavirus.

“They did a great job of putting together a plan to try to give us a chance,” Buchanan said. “ … I honestly think our kids are safer at school and when they’re at practice because we’re going to make them social distance and follow the guidelines.”

Last week, officials announced that full-contact practices with helmets and pads for about 500 large schools like Aledo — which has roughly 1,900 students, including 250 football players — would be delayed until Sept. 7. The team’s first game against neighboring Weatherford was pushed back to Sept. 25 and the state championship — usually held before Christmas — was moved to January.

The league also imposed new pandemic training, travel and seating rules. Buses can only ferry two dozen students at a time, meaning Aledo will have to double its fleet for games to a half-dozen, plus band and cheer teams.

Stadiums will be limited to half capacity, and those who attend must wear masks. That’s a big deal in towns like Aledo, where the $11 million Bearcat Stadium complex is routinely packed and officials still hadn’t decided this week how to distribute tickets. A couple thousand fans also travel to attend away games.

The pandemic has reshaped this year’s football season in other ways too. Aledo is scheduled to start school Aug. 19 (it wasn’t clear this week whether classes would be remote or in person). But as COVID hospitalizations and deaths spiked across Texas in July, several large districts delayed reopening and with it football, including Aledo’s competitors in neighboring Tarrant County and to the south at Fort Bend Marshall, who they beat in the state championship last year.

Since Texas allowed on-campus strength and conditioning workouts in June, more than 200 schools have suspended workouts due to the virus. Some teams have added protective equipment, including helmet face shields. Buchanan opted against the shields, which he said could fog up and dislodge during play in Texas’ triple-digit heat.

But he planned to order hundreds of orange and black Bearcat gator face coverings this week with players’ numbers emblazoned on them. He hopes that delaying full-contact practices until August will prevent players from becoming infected.

“Hopefully it won’t create more illnesses,” he said.

Buchanan, 60, has coached at Aledo since 1993. He’s diabetic, which puts him at added risk of contracting the virus. He’s careful to wear a mask and to keep his distance from players while running drills.

“When kids come up to shake my hand, I back away,” he said.

This town depends on Buchanan and the team he built to light up the scoreboard and carry it through the toughest bust Texas has seen. Aledo is one of more than a hundred Dallas-Fort Worth oil-dependent suburbs stunned by the economic downturn that has accompanied the pandemic.

Under the new rules, if a player is exposed to someone with COVID, shows symptoms or tests positive, they have to stop playing until they pass a medical screening. Aledo’s rules are even stricter. Last week, an Aledo player who tested positive had to self quarantine for two weeks, along with his weight-lifting partner. Several others have already had to stay home from practice because they were exposed to relatives who tested positive.

Senior Sam Forman, 18, a middle linebacker, sat out of practice after his 16-year-old cousin, who lives nearby, tested positive two weeks ago. Forman never had symptoms, and said his cousin — who plays football for a school in Fort Worth — has recovered.

“I wish we were practicing for real,” Forman said, bemoaning the delay in full-contact play during a break in drills Monday, “but we can still get a lot of work in.”

During the break, players sat, stretched and chatted in clusters on the stadium’s artificial turf.

“This is the hardest part right here: Trying to keep them spread out,” Buchanan said.

He worries about his players most when they leave practice to mingle with friends and family. Several left Monday to have breakfast together at Aledo Diner, where they shed their masks to tuck into biscuits and gravy and other dishes listed as “Bearcat Specials.”

“I have a harder time getting the parents to wear masks,” Buchanan said.

The county surrounding Aledo has reported only 982 COVID cases and eight deaths. But about 20 miles east, the county surrounding Fort Worth reported 25,739 cases and 343 deaths. Some parents in the stands Monday wore masks. A few didn’t.

“It’s scary, but I mean, what can we do? Life still goes on. We can’t let this COVID stop us.”

Parents said they worried the new pandemic restrictions will hurt not just their sons’ play, but also their college prospects. Many of Aledo’s 65 varsity players, including 42 seniors, have spent years preparing for this season. Others moved to Aledo for the chance to join the team. Some have already committed to powerhouse teams like Louisiana State University.

“I really wish they would have left it shut down longer and kids would have had a clearer understanding if they’re playing or not,” said Carlos Williams, 44, who works at a freight business and came to watch his 17-year-old son, a linebacker, practice.

Williams said he was concerned that players’ families might get sick.

Others disagreed.

“I would have preferred just do business as normal,” said Aaron Valencia, who didn’t wear a mask as he watched his son Eli train to play safety. “I’m not worried about the COVID. It’s good to have these kids out here.”

Valencia said he was laid off from his job as a manager at a chemical company due to the pandemic.

“I know more people who have been laid off than have COVID,” he said.

Sitting in the stands nearby, Calvin Flinta, a U.S. Army veteran who works at the Veteran’s Administration, said he also knows a lot of people who’ve lost their jobs.

“At least we have football,” said Flinta, 48, whose son Logan is a senior hoping to score a football scholarship like his older brother did at the University of Arizona.

“This is his only chance to prove himself,” Flinta said.

Parents said delaying the season made them feel safer. But they debated other changes, like limiting attendance. Many were season ticket holders who hadn’t missed a game in years. Among those watching practice was a man whose son hadn’t even made the team yet — he was only 12, but already played slot, corner and running back.

Tiffany Allen’s eldest, Bryan “B.J.” Allen, 15, is a rising junior who plays safety, while her younger son Jaden Allen, 14, is playing corner as a freshman. Allen, 36, a patient care tech who works nights, plans to attend games just as she did last year.

“I’ll be there front and center with my mask on,” she said. “It’s scary, but I mean, what can we do? Life still goes on. We can’t let this COVID stop us.”

As the varsity players left the field Monday, they replaced their masks and headed for the parking lot. The JV squad and dozens of middle schoolers filed past them onto the field, hoping to prove themselves as morning clouds cleared and the sun appeared, hot and unforgiving.