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A Disappearing Town In The Shadow Of Big Coal

Ten years ago this spring, the residents of Cheshire, Ohio, had a decision to make: They could stay in their homes and suffer the effects of pollution from a nearby coal-burning power plant; or they could let that plant's owner buy them out and, building by building, dismantle their town. In April 2002, they chose to sell.

A few weeks ago, I came across the photographs Franz Jantzen took documenting what happened next. Jantzen is a Washington, D.C.-based fine art photographer who has recently attracted attention for his work digitally assembling dozens — sometimes hundreds — of photographs into multidimensional images. But what he did in Cheshire is much more basic.

After hearing about the Cheshire buyout from family in southern Ohio, Jantzen paid the town a visit. He used his view camera to capture idyllic scenes of small-town America; then he came back one year, two years and finally seven years later to see how the town had changed.

"The first visit was sort of creepy because it looked like a bucolic little town," Jantzen says, and yet its residents were preparing to pack up and leave. "A year after my first visit — that was the strangest because the houses had not been torn down yet but everybody had moved out. ... It was like a ghost town. People were tearing down the vinyl siding of their houses."

According to Pat Hemlepp, a spokesman for the plant's owner, American Electric Power, the events leading up to the buyout started in the summer of 2001. At that time, the company installed new emissions control equipment at the plant, and blue clouds of sulfuric acid started drifting into town.

"The sulfuric acid mist was an irritant," Hemlepp tells The Picture Show in an email. "Anyone exposed to it would get an allergic-like reaction — itchy, burning eyes; scratchy throat; etc. — but the symptoms would disappear when the exposure ended."

Locals told The Associated Press that the smog also caused headaches and chemical burns. It wasn't long before they took their complaints to American Electric Power, and eventually settled on a buyout.

Not long after, houses began to disappear and were replaced with grassy lawns that are now part of plant property. Jantzen caught much of that transformation on film in what would become a chilling documentation of the town's decline.

One set begins in 2003 with a shot of an American flag perched above resident Helen Preston's front yard, smokestacks from the plant in the background. Several cars can be seen driving down her street. But in another shot from 2004, traffic is scarce and Preston's across-the-street neighbors are all gone, along with their houses. By 2009, there's no sign of Preston's house at all.

"It was an odd sensation to see something change so quickly," Jantzen says.

That sensation is perhaps best captured in the series of photos Jantzen took of a small, rundown convenience store.

"In 2002, it's a beat-up little store, but there's life, there's a Coke machine, there are signs," he says. By 2003, the signs are gone, and by 2004, so is the store.

"[In 2004], I step back to show you the trees that were on either side in the first two pictures. And then five years later I came back and even those two trees had been plowed down," he says.

Jantzen's photos serve as a kind of time-lapse in reverse — instead of watching buildings go up, we're watching them come down. But that's not what he had in mind when he first started taking pictures of Cheshire.

"At the beginning, I don't think I thought of it as a series — my first intention was to go there and see what's going on," he says. "It came very quickly that this could be an advanced aging kind of project. The town was facing such a dramatic turning point."

Today, the power plant is still in operation, but the coal industry is facing fresh opposition, at a much larger scale. Just last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new regulations that would effectively outlaw the construction of new coal-fueled power plants. So while today the plant serves as a reminder of the town that once stood at its feet, there may still be changes ahead for the place formerly known as Cheshire.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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