It's a pretty strange occurrence for an entire town to be wiped off the map in the span of two or three years. That's what makes the case of this Gallia County hamlet so noteworthy. Cheshire, a town located just upriver from Point Pleasant, WV (where the infamous Mothman was sighted in the late 1960s), is in the process of becoming Ohio's latest ghost town. Instead of a flood or a hurricane or hard times, what's wiping out this little town is energy giant American Electric Power, which operates the massive James M. Gavin coal-fueled power plant just a few hundred feet away from the city limits sign.
In order to understand the whole story, you have to go back a few years and take a look at the long legal struggle the citizens of Cheshire engaged in with AEP--a landmark case in environmental law which made national headlines with its unusual outcome.
The buyout of Cheshire happened in the spring of 2002, after the years-long court battle between the town's citizens, who hired Washington attorneys to represent them, and AEP. For many years blue sulfuric clouds have escaped from the numerous smokestacks at the Gavin plant and passed over the village, causing problems ranging from a sooty residue on houses to milky chemical fogs. White droplets from the plant sometimes fall from the sky when the wind is right. Some of this came from AEP's attempts to remedy other contamination problems; anhydrous ammonia was used to clean the smokestacks' exhaust, but the side effects of this process included those sulfurous clouds that caused eye and skin irritation, as well as headaches, sore throats, and some lovely white burn marks on the lips and tongue. The final straw for Cheshire residents was a report commissioned by AEP itself that found that the local schools would have had about six minutes to evacuate in the event of an anhydrous ammonia tank leak.
In August 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Gavin plant in violation of the Clean Air Act. A later study found that the air in Cheshire was five times the level necessary to cause an asthma attack. None of this did much to keep AEP from pouring poison into the air, although they did experiment with a switch to the solid form of anhydrous ammonia. What finally did it for the company was a notification in March 2002 that the EPA was going to require them to burn a lower-sulfur coal, as well as submit to more stringent testing standards. It took AEP less than a month to make the village of Cheshire (Pop. 221) an offer it couldn't refuse: a complete buyout of the entire town.
How much is an American town running these days, you ask? AEP paid $20 million, and that's overspending when you look at property values. Estimates of the actual value of the town's land, homes, and few businesses put it at about $6 million. The difference will go to cover legal costs and act as a sort of punitive award--compensation for the fact that the residents are forced to move elsewhere. Many families have lived in this area for generations. Within two years, it was predicted, the community would either not be here or have changed so drastically that it would barely be the same place.
An April 2002 Dispatch article on the Cheshire buyout (which you can read here) stated that the town would be empty of residents by the end of that year, but the moveout was quickly behind its schedule. I'm not sure it's safe to expect to see Cheshire become a true ghost town, empty of residents, with each of its 86 homes boarded up and deserted, anytime soon. AEP may still plan to turn the land into a storage site for coal which is brought up the river to be burned in the plant, which was their intention in April, but in September 2002 a subsequent agreement was reached that allows Cheshire to remain a village and the property owners who elected not to sell to AEP to stay. Things keep changing. But while contractual wrangling is underway, Cheshire is slowly but surely emptying out. It never had more residents than a large apartment complex, and now, those people are leaving.
Watching the process is fascinating, no matter how you feel about the case. (Personally, I don't think $20 million per person would be too severe a penalty for AEP; take a look at some of those playground photos and tell me if you don't agree. $20 million is hardly a nuisance to a company the size of American Electric Power.) I've visited twice so far--once shortly after the buyout, when the town was still at full occupancy, and then again a year later, in 2003. The change in that single year was striking; the Washington Post did a piece about the exodus-in-progress in November of 2003, which you can read here.
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Click below to take a look at the town at either point, and check back here for regular updates on the becoming process of Ohio's first man-made ghost town in more than half a century.
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Special thanks to many contributors to this section, including residents of Cheshire and other towns similarly mistreated by corporate industry, and even an EPA scientist whose insight was invaluable.