“I’m not selling out. That’s all there is to it. I’m not afraid. I’ve got my dogs, I’ve got my guns, they’re loaded and I know how to shoot ‘em.”
-Boots Hern, resident for over 64 years who refuses to move.
A gun toting 83-year old woman refuses to sell her house to the power plant next door. But despite her refusal, the plant has moved ahead with their 20 million dollar deal to buy out most of Cheshire and bulldoze all the homes. What happened in this Ohio River town overrun by one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the world? A story of money, power and the increasingly difficult choices we face surrounding coal and the environment, Cheshire, Ohio makes us think twice about home.
Filmed over a decade, Cheshire, Ohio offers the unusual opportunity to follow a community devastated by coal, starting with American Electric Power’s buyout and bulldozing of this Ohio River community after exposing them to years of harmful emissions, and then returning several years later to the now almost emptied town as we follow the case of 77 plaintiffs who have filed a lawsuit against American Electric Power for cancer and other diseases they developed from working unprotected at the plant’s coal ash landfill site.
As the cycle of pollution from coal continues, we see how one town continually suffers from our continued reliance on carbon energy.
History and The Buyout
We trace the history of this village back to its roots as a coal-mining community up to its time as the location picked to build one of largest coal-fired power plants in the world. Welcomed by the town at the time it was constructed in the early 70s and a relatively quiet neighbor for two decades, everything shifted in the late 90s when the plant was forced to reduce the height of its over 1,000 foot stack to prevent the emissions that were traveling hundreds of miles away causing acid rain in the Northeast and Canada. But once the stack was cut down by several hundred feet, pollution problems plagued the town including the frightening “blue haze acid cloud touchdowns” of sulfuric acid mist.
We follow residents, some who trace their roots back several generations to the region, as they grapple with the decision of whether to fight American Electric Power and the plant or whether to ask for a buyout and leave. In the end, many expressed a sense of powerlessness over an inability to fight such a large company: “We couldn’t fight. We’re not big enough. So we decided to take the buyout, “ said Eva Cochran, a resident who took the deal. Almost all of the homeowners in Cheshire agreed to the deal that included signing away their right to sue the plant for future health problems. But a handful of residents stayed and witnessed the inevitable bulldozing of their town.
Told poetically with beautiful archival footage and photographs, a haunting musical score and interviews with residents captured over several years, this film provides an intimate look at the demise of one American town sacrificed for power and looks ahead to the continued cost of coal to us all.
Return to Cheshire over 10 years later…
After the homes are all bulldozed and several years have past, the film returns in 2014 and 2015 to capture the empty town of deserted plots and grassy fields with the power plant still pumping C02 and other contaminants in the air, starkly revealing what was sacrificed for the sake of power. Now it’s not just CO2 that is a concern but coal ash waste seeping into the soil and water.
A compelling lawsuit was recently filed by 77 plaintiffs who were exposed to dangerous chemicals from coal waste at the plant’s landfill in Cheshire. Workers were told the coal waste was “safe enough to eat” by a supervisor and were unprotected from breathing in cancer causing dust. By the time we start filming, 6 workers have died from cancer and several others are very sick. The interviews reveal the gradual awakening of workers to the malfeasance of the plant and its disregard for their health. The legal team from West Virginia representing them are passionate about the harm big industry wreaks in their region, having defended the families of the 38 miners killed in the Big Branch Mine disaster as well many cases related to coal and its pollution.
Cheshire Ohio reveals over time in one community the great sacrifices made for using coal as an energy source. Not only was a beloved town destroyed, but the health of workers who devoted years to the plant has been grossly compromised for the sake of profit. The story is told by the people whose lives are most intimately affected and who are great characters and storytellers: from the 93 year old Gladys Rife who accepted the buyout but is allowed to stay until she dies; to Boots Hern, the gun toting widow who won’t sell out her home to the plant; to the Cochrans who mourn the loss of the town as they accept the buyout and move; to the young family who moved in recently for work but whose daughter suffers from asthma from living across from the plant; to Iva Sissen, a worker at the plant who is fighting ovarian cancer she believes was caused from unsafe exposure to the coal ash. These voices and others paint a complex and layered story of a quintessential American town devastated by this industry in a state that is considered the battleground over the “war on coal.”