By Joe Timmerman and Tre Spencer
The General James M. Gavin Power Plant is the largest coal-fired power plant in Ohio. With the capacity to produce 2,600 megawatts of electricity, it has been operational for over 40 years after being commissioned in 1974.
The Gavin Plant has a notorious history of polluting, that has included a $20 million buyout of a multitude of homes where Cheshire residents lived. The buyout occurred in 2002 to avoid lawsuits that were related to sickness complaints from residents who blamed plumes emitted from the plant.
Today, in Gallia County, the village of Cheshire is home to around 120 people — a shell of what it used to be. A once lively town, now without a heartbeat, as Scotty Lucas, a resident of the village since 1955, and former mayor, says.
Lucas, 90, has witnessed how the village has transformed over decades. He also happens to share his backyard with the catalyst for his community’s change: the General James M. Gavin Power Plant.
At the end of 2022, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released federal guidelines protecting groundwater from coal ash contamination that currently threatens to restrict operations at the Gavin Plant in Cheshire.
Coal ash is the byproduct of coal-powered plants and includes a variety of different types of other byproducts like fly ash, boiler slag and bottom ash. When disposed incorrectly or stored unsafely, that ash becomes a contaminant that can harm the environment.
According to a statement released by the U.S. EPA, coal-powered industrial plants must properly dispose of their waste materials. From the Gavin Plant’s commission in 1974, it has continuously disposed of its coal ash byproducts into unlined ponds that pose a threat to groundwater in surrounding areas.
Coal ash ponds are containment sites that are filled with coal ash and many of those are unlined. Lining coal ash ponds helps keep the chemical byproducts of coal ash from seeping into the groundwater. Lined ponds include a synthetic or organic liner that acts as a sponge to contain the toxic chemicals found within the remnants of the ash.
According to a map by EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, 746 coal ash units in the U.S. and Puerto Rico have reported information in compliance with federal coal ash safeguards since 2015. Out of those 746 units, 94% are unlined.
In a recent interview with an U.S. EPA official, it was revealed that out of the 23 federally regulated surface impoundments in Ohio, 22 are unlined, including the bottom ash pond at the Gavin Plant.
According to the U.S. EPA in documents about their decision regarding the Gavin Plant, the Part A Rule established that electric utilities must cease receiving waste into all unlined coal combustion surface impoundments. The Gavin plant requested an extension on the ruling, but the EPA made a final decision to deny their application.
“We received 57 Part A applications. Gavin is the only one we’ve issued one final decision for,” an EPA official says.
According to comments submitted in its recent request for an extension, the Gavin plant says it is actively working on building new disposal capacity to replace their unlined ponds and plans to expedite the completion to March 2023.
The Contamination Countinues
“If you have an unlined pond, that coal ash is essentially sitting in the groundwater,” “Essentially if you have an unlined pit, that coal ash is essentially sitting in the groundwater. Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Ohio University, Dr. Natalie Kruse Daniels says. “You would have to have a lot of monitoring around that area in the water to understand where the particularly metals are moving from that pond into the water, and they didn’t have that.”
“If you even just say mercury, arsenic, cadmium, sulfur and your sulfates, those are not necessarily things you want in your water,” Dr. Daniels says. “When you have unlined ponds sitting in the groundwater, you’re going to have transport of those metals and metal alloys into the water, and that water is going to move.”
Coal ash contamination is dangerous in a multitude of ways and can introduce dangerous chemicals into groundwater that people ultimately consume. According to a report from Physicians for Social Responsibility that outlines coal ash hazards, coal ash contains many heavy metals including aluminum, arsenic, lead and mercury.
When ingested, inhaled or drunk, those heavy metals begin to develop toxic effects that impact the nervous system and can even lead to a higher risk for cancer.
For many residents of Southeast Ohio, their source of water originates from many places including groundwater wells. In a study conducted by Ohio University that outlined water accessibility in Appalachian Ohio, approximately 34% of the population across 32 counties did not have access to a public water system.
As the EPA’s decision beneath the Gavin Plant, much like the chemical-rich groundwater that flows beneath Cheshire, the future of coal-fired power in Ohio and across the country is currently debated.
Given that 96% of federally regulated surface impoundments in Ohio and 94% of coal ash units in the U.S. are unlined, the Gavin Plant could just be the first plant to close if the EPA’s new guidelines aren’t followed.
“Sometimes you have to have a bigger case to help make change for the smaller ones,” Dr. Daniels says in reference to the impact the EPA’s decision on the Gavin Plant may have on the coal industry.
“With Gavin, it’s a big plant. It’s right on the Ohio River. It’s literally at groundwater level. It’s kind of a really glaring example,” Dr. Daniels says. “I do hope that these sort of decisions do further change the management of how we deal with this because it is yet another source of water contamination.”
A Bleak Future
While many of the residents who accepted the Gavin Plant’s buyout in 2002 left Cheshire, Scotty Lucas continues to live in his home with a lifetime contract. As Lucas gets older though, so does the plant.
“The plant is in very bad repairs, it’s 40 some years old,” Lucas says. “It’s rusted down, to put it in plain words.”
Lucas says that his son, Brian, who worked as a foreman and machinist at the plant until retiring within the last year, has said that the place is in such a mess that you just don’t know where to start.
“I don’t see much future for the village,” Lucas says. “You got street lights, you got gas and paved streets and so on… there’s not enough people to support that so I don’t see much future for the village.”
“The plant… the way it sounds for the people that know and the people who are working there, it doesn’t sound too promising,” Lucas says. “They might give it up.”
A representive from Lightstone Generation LLC, the company that owns the Gavin Plant, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.