Beneath the Plume


As the global climate change debate intensifies around the world, living in close proximity to coal burning power plants is a daily reality for many communities in the rural United States.

The James Gavin power plant is located literally in the middle of the town of Cheshire, Ohio. It is the largest power plant in Ohio, and burns up to 25,000 tons of coal a day at full capacity. In 2002, the residents of Cheshire filed a lawsuit against AEP after suffering health impacts caused by sulfuric acid emissions from the power plant. AEP responded by buying out the entire community for $20 million, in exchange for agreeing not to sue the company for any future health problems linked to the power plants emissions. Most took the buyout, and the power plant continues to operate. The nearby town of Racine, Ohio, population 750, is within a 10-mile radius of 4 coal burning power plants, including the Gavin plant. Two of these power plants are less than two miles from the town’s elementary and high school.

This essay explores these two small towns in Meigs County, Ohio, and the intimate yet complex connection they have with an industry that is both a lifeline to their livelihood, and a threat to the larger global climate. 

A local youth football league practices beneath the American Electric Power Gen. James M. Gavin coal-burning power plant in Cheshire, Ohio. It is the largest coal fired power plant in Ohio, and one of the largest in the nation.

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Local school children ride the bus home after school in Racine, Ohio. AEP's Mountaineer and Philip Sporn power plants are located less than 2 miles from the Racine Southern Elementary and High School.

A 2010 Clean Air Task Force study found that annually 110 deaths, 180 heart attacks, and 1,700 asthma attacks are attributable to fine particle pollution from the Philip Sporn power plant alone. 

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Riding through a puddle in the halfpipe at the Racine Star Mill Park. The kids in Racine and neighboring towns hang out at the park after school and on weekends. The AEP Mountaineer and Philip Sporn power plants are situated directly across the Ohio River, less than one mile away from the park.

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Local residents fish for catfish on the Ohio River at the Racine boat dock. Residents are advised to throw everything they catch back into the river, because the mercury from the coal fired power plants situated on the river have contaminated the water, making the fish unsafe for consumption.

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Local resident Mike McCoy smokes a cigarette and drinks a beer while looking out of the window of his trailer in Racine, Ohio.

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The Philip Sporn power plant, owned by American Electric Power, situated directly across the river from Racine, Ohio. Built in 1950, it was the first power plant to be installed in the area. This plant is not equipped with new pollution control devices, and is less than 2 miles away from the elementary school and Star Mill public park.

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Inside the AEP Mountaineer power plant. The Mountaineer power plant is located directly across the Ohio River from the town of Racine, Ohio, and burns an average of 9,000 tons of coal per day.

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Inside the AEP Mountaineer power plant. 

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Inside AEP’s Mountaineer coal burning power plant. The AEP Philip Sporn power plant is located on the same complex. Both plants are situated across the river from the town of Racine, Ohio and are less than 2 miles from the Racine Southern Elementary and High School.

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Racine, Cheshire, and other Meigs County residents dance at the private Eagles Bar in Pomeroy, Ohio.

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View from an abandoned house in Cheshire, Ohio. Through the window you can see the house of Gertrude Heisel, a long-time resident who refused to leave during the AEP buyout, and the Gavin coal burning power plant across the street.

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Elisa Young, a seventh generation Racine resident, visits her relatives in a graveyard in Cheshire, Ohio. American Electric Power have created a pit for a coal ash disposal site by digging around the hill to the very edges of the graveyard. Cheshire is home to two coal burning power plants, Gavin and Kyger Creek.

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A local boy plays on a toy at the Star Mill Park in Racine, Ohio. The AEP Mountaineer Power Plant is situated directly across the Ohio River, less than one mile away from the park.

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Amber and Jaxson Ohlinger, 7. hold a photograph of John Ohlinger, Ambers father, who died of cancer soon after Jaxson was born. John worked in the Gavin power plant, and believed his cancer was caused by exposure to the toxic fumes he was exposed to everyday.

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Hilton “Fooze” Wolfe Jr, 73, a fifth generation Racine resident, hangs out with friends in the Kountry Kitchen café. Hilton was a teacher in the local high school for 40 years, and spends his days hanging out at the Kountry Kitchen café and working on his cars. He describes Racine as deteriorating and disintegrating. He thinks the new coal mine and power plants bring hope of bolstering the local economy. 

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A Racine resident drives onto the grounds of the Gatling Ohio Coal Mine in Racine. The mine closed in 2011, after only two years of operations. The residents of Racine hoped that this new industry would bolster the economy and bring new life to the town.

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The US Post Office in Cheshire, Ohio.

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A Meig's county resident looks over his land, located between the towns of Cheshire and Racine. He is concerned about the health and environmental impacts that the four coal burning power plants have on the communities.

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A playground overlooks the AEP Gen. James M. Gavin coal burning power plant in Cheshire, Ohio.

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Coal belt at the Mountaineer power plant, situated on the Ohio river in New Haven, West Virginia, across the river from Racine, Ohio.

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