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MOUNDSVILLE — Route 2 snakes along the Ohio River in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. After a bend in the road, the smokestacks and cooling towers of the Mitchell Power Plant suddenly come into view, towering above the hills.
Even further above, the plant’s smoke blends into the clouds, pumping tens of thousands of pounds of toxic air pollution like nickel, chromium, sulfur dioxide and mercury into the air every year.
These chemicals can contribute to or worsen a variety of health problems, including cancer. And this risk in the area immediately around the Mitchell plant is far from unique: it’s one of several in West Virginia, identified for the first time in a new analysis by ProPublica. In the state’s largest hotspot — one encompassing the Kanawha Valley’s chemical plants — the map shows how pollution from multiple facilities combines, increasing the cancer risks borne by people who live nearby.
Near Moundsville, both the Mitchell plant and the Covestro chemical plant a few miles south legally release levels of toxic air pollution that increase cancer risks over the level the federal government deems acceptable. And those aren’t the only industrial facilities dotting the banks of the Ohio River.
“The problem with all these plants in our area is the pollution just hangs in the air,” said Amanda Petrucci, who lives nearby. “It just sinks into our valley.”
West Virginia political leaders talk a lot about coal, about mining and about coal-fired power plants. They talk about jobs and tax revenues. They oppose new environmental regulations. They fight to keep plants open, regardless of the cost.
But coal plants like Mitchell are major polluters. And a new ProPublica map provides the clearest look to date at the public health threats that lurk in the background.
Petrucci and her family live a few miles north of the Mitchell plant, in her husband’s childhood home. For her, just outside the area of increased cancer risk identified by ProPublica, the more visible problem is a nearby plant that sits on part of a former Superfund site and processes natural gas byproducts.
Petrucci can see the flare from the gas plant from her kitchen and living room. She often gets migraines when the flame is lit.
“It is a direct shot,” Petrucci said. “I had to put blinds in so I did not see that flame. It lights up my living room.”
The gas plant is a newer concern; it opened in 2013. But the Mitchell plant has been operating in Marshall County since 1971, one year after the Clean Air Act was passed by Congress. For most of its 50 years, the plant and others around the country were able to emit toxic chemicals into the air largely unchecked.
“Coal fired power plants have been the largest source of toxic air pollution in the country for many, many decades since before the Clean Air Act was passed and they escaped regulations for many decades as well,” said Neil Gormley, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, a national environmental law organization. “They were able to pump toxic pollution like mercury, lead, cadmium, hydrogen cyanide and other acid gases — a long list of highly acutely toxic pollutants were unregulated from coal-fired power plants for many decades.”
These pollutants have been associated with an increased risk of health problems like asthma, cancers, bronchitis and heart disease.
That began to change a decade ago when the EPA finalized the first national rules to regulate toxic air pollution. Since then, Gormley says, power plants have reduced the amount of harmful toxins they emit.
American Electric Power, which owns the Mitchell Power Plant, says that updated technology at the plant has cut sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions by “well over 90%” since 2000.
“AEP is committed to being a good neighbor and operating our facilities in full compliance with all federal, state and local standards,” a spokesperson said in an email.
But there’s still more to be done.
Gormley says some pollutants are still under-regulated. And despite the technology existing for continuous monitoring, emissions data for many plants is still based on a single quarterly test.
ProPublica’s analysis of EPA data found the area right around the Mitchell plant has a cancer risk of one in 1,800, which is more than five times the level the agency deems “acceptable.” The people most vulnerable are the plant’s 200 employees, but more than 400 others live close enough to be exposed to the emissions.
But in a place like Moundsville, the pollution sources that show up on the map — like the Mitchell plant and the Covestro plant, where officials didn’t return a request for comment — might just scratch the surface. The government data that’s the basis for the ProPublica map only includes facilities that emit certain chemicals in certain amounts. The map focuses on cancer risks, but residents also face other health risks, such as diabetes and asthma. Other pollutants from other facilities, like those in ProPublica’s map, have the potential to build up over time in the water and soil, which can pose a risk to groundwater or food sources.
Doctors often can’t link cancer to any one specific environmental exposure; the disease can also be caused by genetic or lifestyle factors. But scientists say that the likelihood of developing cancer is exacerbated by cumulative environmental exposures over time, and the possibility of developing health problems because of her exposure to industrial pollution worries Petrucci.
A spokesperson for Williams, the company that operates the natural gas processing plant nearby, didn’t return a request for comment.
In addition to that plant, Petrucci’s family is concerned about the part of the nearby EPA Superfund site that hasn’t been fully cleaned up yet. Though she doesn’t know if the two are related, her family started to have health problems around 2008, the same time that the site’s owner began to excavate contaminated dirt. Her son became ill and was ultimately diagnosed with an uncommon blood disorder.
In 2020, she installed two air monitors at her home. Pulling up one of the monitor’s data on their laptop, she and her husband point to recent spikes in volatile organic compounds. These chemicals, commonly called VOCs, are found in common household items like paints and cleaners and are associated with a range of symptoms including headaches and nausea, according to the EPA. But they’re also emitted from industrial facilities.
Looking at a VOC spike from the day before, the Petruccis said that around the same time, their daughter got a headache and had to take a nap.
They got the monitors so they could better understand what they were being exposed to on a daily basis. “We were looking all the time,” Petrucci said. But eventually it became too much. They grew exhausted and now check the data less frequently, she said.
Earlier this year, it was the Mitchell plant’s water and land pollution that was under scrutiny. American Electric Power wanted permission to bill ratepayers for the $450 million they’d have to spend to comply with new federal coal ash and wastewater treatment regulations.
Closing the plant would be much cheaper, AEP told regulators.
“The plant should have been shut down strictly on economics,” said James Van Nostrand, director of the West Virginia University College of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development. “But with respect to air quality, now you have a plant that will be running for 19 more years. It’s more than just economics when you’ve got particulate matter raining down on you.”
In October, the West Virginia Public Service Commission approved the rate increase after Kentucky and Virginia regulators balked, putting the burden of the upgrades squarely on the shoulders of West Virginians.
While the rate increase will be spread among all of AEP’s West Virginia customers, the pollution is a much more localized problem. And besides the toxic air coming out of the Mitchell plant’s stack, there’s the ash that’s left after the coal is burned for energy.
Sometimes this coal ash is stored in dry landfills, but sometimes it’s in large ponds. This residue contains toxic chemicals and carcinogens, and the ponds can pose risks to air quality and groundwater if they are not capped or lined properly.
Ash ponds were largely unregulated by the federal government until a massive spill of an ash pond in Tennessee in 2008 prompted federal review.
Although the Mitchell plant uses ash ponds onsite now, it still retains coal ash nearby at its Conner Run Dam impoundment,: a 71-acre property that abuts Peggy Sebulsky’s land.
Because Sebulsky lives two and a half miles away from the power plant on a ridge, she’s less concerned about its air emissions. However, she was surprised when she took a walk one day and realized how large the ash pond was.
“I said, ‘what is all this water?’ I thought I had walked near the river,” Sebulsky said.
While pollution from coal ash ponds can leak into water, Sebulsky says that’s less of a concern because she’s on city water. But she did object when American Electric Power tried to buy part of her property to extend the ash pond.
Standing on her back porch, she points about 50 yards away, indicating how close they wanted to bring the ash pond to her house. When she said she didn’t want to sell, they offered to buy her and a couple of neighbors out. But she and her relatives have lived on the ridge for most of her life and she has no interest in moving.
Sebulsky’s husband is a former coal miner, and she’s okay with the plant continuing to operate because of its importance for the region’s economy. But she does want it to be as safe as possible, and she didn’t want to live within sight of the sludge.
“I want clean air for my grandchildren,” Sebulsky said.
But how clean her air is, a few miles away from a power plant and near a coal ash pond, is hard to measure. So is the health risk.
According to Van Nostrand, a lot of this information is technically available, and data may be the best tool that residents have when it comes to advocating for their health. The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, passed by Congress in 1986, was meant to give residents like Sebulsky and Petrucci new tools to assess the danger industries pose to their health and families.
“That’s what EPCRA is all about, making sure the public has the information. Here’s what they’re allowed to emit and here’s what they’re actually emitting. You’d be amazed if you go on to that [toxic release inventory] website and see how far some out of compliance. If you can’t get DEP to take action, you can sue them,” Van Nostrand said.
But in reality, the real-world implications of this data are out of reach for many without a scientific background. Emissions information from state and federal regulators is typically listed in terms of tons and how far emissions can reach depends on factors like the wind. The ProPublica map is an important tool because it’s designed to be user-friendly. Petrucci thinks it’s a good start.
Looking at the hotspot map, she said she wished it could incorporate more sources of pollution. She would like to see the risk for the natural gas processing plant near her home, which isn’t required to report to the EPA’s toxic release inventory program, although it does emit tons of toxics every year. She also wants a way to see realtime data. “It’s not current data, we need that,” she said.
Like Sebulsky, Petrucci understands that the industries in Marshall County have a long history of providing jobs for families. But she says that there needs to be a better balance that protects people’s health.
“I want to protect the investment in the community and the jobs people have. I don’t want people to lose their jobs, but at the same time I want regulation,” Petrucci said. She also feels that regulators need to do a better job at communicating health risks and sharing information with residents who live nearby.
There’s room for improvement. As she talked with a reporter for this story, Petrucci pulled up a website and learned that the EPA had recently decided on a plan to remediate the Superfund site across from her house.
“They should have told us this was happening,” she said.
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Quenton King is a native West Virginian, born and raised in Charles Town in the Eastern Panhandle. He previously worked as a policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the National... More by Quenton King