BEVERLY, Ohio – Bessie Sparling doesn’t remember whether ground was broken for the Muskingum River Plant in 1950 or 1951, but she can’t forget the construction traffic it brought to Waterford Township — the first sign of the jobs that would follow.
“I love everything the plant has done for our community. It’s meant jobs for a lot of people here,” she said, planting baby’s breath and petunias in white hanging baskets for sale at her nursery-farm on a recent afternoon.
“The fact of the matter is, without them, the area’d be dead,” said Sparling, 74, a township trustee who rents a field from the power plant.
But eight Northeast states, including Maryland, believe they would be better off without the power plant. It is so old that it was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act and does not have to have all the up-to-date pollution controls required for newer plants.
The states argue that emissions from plants like Muskingum ride the prevailing winds over the Appalachian Mountains to contribute to ozone problems in the East, posing health threats to the young, sick and elderly.
The U.S. Department of Justice has joined the states in a lawsuit to force American Electric Power to clean up 11 of its oldest coal-fired power plants, including Muskingum.
A Capital News Service analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data from 2000 showed the Muskingum plant was the fifth-worst in the nation for combined emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, precursors to ozone. It was the worst of the 11 plants targeted in the states’ suit.
Such talk carries little weight in Washington County, Ohio, where the Muskingum plant is a significant contributor to the tax rolls, and parents and children cheer at baseball games where the power company’s red-and-white logo is painted on the dugouts.
The nearest village is Beverly, population 1,282. Flag down any of the Dodges, Fords or Chevrolets — almost all of the cars here are American made — or sidle up to the counter at the Family Dollar, McDonald’s or Roger’s Family Restaurant and chances are the person will work at the plant or know someone who does.
Sparling’s husband, Don, 76, stands between rows of cabbage and strawberries in the field he rents from the plant. From here, he can see the twin stacks of the plant and the towers carrying high-tension lines — and power — away.
“They have a guy that’s in what they call land management and he’s a damn nice guy. He really treats us good,” Sparling said of his dealings with American Electric Power. “I have nothing against the power plant.”
Todd Himler, 38, lives on the other side of the plant in Morgan County, which has some of Ohio’s highest unemployment.
“We’re so used to it that we don’t think nothing of it,” Himler said of the plant, which he can see out his bedroom window.
He has bigger worries right now than any environmental problems the plant may or may not cause. Himler said he lost $70,000 pig-farming last year and he figures he will be bankrupt by year’s end. If that happens, he will need to find work in this area where most every job — and person — is linked, in one way or another, to the power plant.
The Muskingum plant employs the equivalent of 207 full-time workers, officials say. Plant workers found at the American Legion or at home after work were polite and patient. They spoke freely about the weather and current events, but would not discuss their jobs or their employer’s role in the community.
The plant’s management wasn’t any more forthcoming. A spokeswoman would only say that the company makes every effort to make sure its plants comply with all applicable laws. Even though residents said the plant opens its gates to the community each year, the spokeswoman said journalists cannot tour the facility because of post-Sept. 11 security concerns.
From the end of the drive that leads to the plant, electricity can be heard crackling through the high-voltage lines. It is hard not to hear steam hissing around the cooling tower and the incessant rattle-hum of industry, unless those sounds are drowned out by one of the trains hauling hundreds of coal cars in or out.
To local residents, the trains are a daily reminder that environmentalists cause problems: The plant burned coal from a local mine until it was closed and miners laid off when the high-sulfur content of the ore was said to cause acid rain in the East.
Karlen Cooper, 59, gets tired of plants in the valley having a bad rap.
“They call this valley `Cancer Alley,’ but I’ve never seen any problems with it,” said Cooper, who works as a lineman for the power company during the day, then tends his farm at night.
He never believed the business about acid rain. Back when the plant was burning local coal, he owned a Pontiac Grand Am, a horse trailer and a pickup truck. While hosing off the truck one day, a hunk of paint flecked off about the size of his belt buckle, the same thing that had happened to other cars in the area.
The insurance adjuster said the problem was caused by acid rain. But Cooper asked the adjuster why the paint looked fine on his car and trailer. Later, he called the factory in Detroit and said he was told that it was having problems with certain colors of paint.
Cooper shoots another hole in the business about acid rain, saying that his horses are healthy as, well, a horse. As far as he can see from his farm that overlooks the plant, the crops and trees are fine, he said. And while he has not wet a line in some years, he fished with friends back then and if they did not “land a hundred bass,” it was not a good day.
Cooper finds it hard to believe that the smoke reaches more than 250 miles — drifting over West Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains — to plague Washington, Baltimore, and other Eastern cities.
“What tickles me with everyone on the East Coast complaining, is (that) the prevailing winds take it further north,” he said.
His son, Chad Cooper, 32, looks from the pasture down the hill at the plant, “as the crow flies, I’d say it’s 2.5 mile.”
He uses emissions from the stacks to predict the weather, a trick his grandmother taught him when he was a boy.
“That’s a good sign of rain when it blows that way,” the younger Cooper said. “Normally it blows straight up. It’s blowing almost due east.”
In the direction, that is, of Maryland.