Polluted Utopia

In Timberlake Village, neighbors coexist with an industrial nightmare.

FirstEnergy powerplants environmental hazards
You can't have paradise, say Timberlake residents, without making a few concessions. - Eartha Goodwin
You can't have paradise, say Timberlake residents, without making a few concessions.
Standing amid the ancient trees and lush green grass in Stan and Hildegard Prislan's backyard, you imagine you're in the Black Forest. It's the little accents that take you there, like the smokehouse and the wooden rocking horse Stan built for the grandkids.

That's why the couple moved to Timberlake Village, a tiny burgh of roughly 800 residents, tucked away under a leafy canopy between Eastlake and a quiet stretch of beautiful Lake Erie beach. "This is next to heaven, this place," says Stan, a retired meatpacker, puffing a cigar.

Then a low rumbling vibrates the moist earth. It gets louder and louder, drowning out his voice. Train cars heaped with black coal chug behind a chain-link fence, so closely you could lob a rock into them. Diesel fumes mix with cigar smoke.

The coal will go to fire the boilers of a FirstEnergy plant that abuts the Prislans' property. It's so close, you have to tilt your head back to see the tops of the towering smokestacks, which blink every few seconds to warn away planes. Occasionally, the whole neighborhood gets covered in black soot, as if it were inside a coal mine.

Make that almost heaven.

"When you live here, you have to put up with something," says Hildegard. "You can't have everything."

Nowhere else in the area will you find a neighborhood this close to a power plant -- not even in Avon Lake, where another FirstEnergy plant towers above McMansions. Technically, Timberlake -- incorporated in 1947 -- was here first. The plant got its operating permit five years later.

But you won't find angry mothers holding picket signs. There are no "For Sale" signs dotting otherwise tranquil streets. Ohio Citizen Action, which organized a massive campaign against another big polluter, Mittal Steel in the Flats, hadn't even heard of Timberlake's woes. The neighbors here love their little village. They're dedicated to making their relationship with the coal plant a stable, peaceful one.

"You have no choice," says Carl Spahar, a retired maintenance man and 40-year resident. "You need the energy. We know that."

But like all relationships, it gets rocky at times. Besides fallout from the stacks, dust from a stockpile of coal towering at least 50 feet high blows throughout the neighborhood. Realtor Gary Gray huffs up and down his driveway, showing off the paint job on his wife's cherry Camaro. It's covered with resiny black dust -- it'll take a buffer to get the crap off. Then he drags his index finger along the vinyl siding of his house. It comes back pitch black. Gray talks about one winter day when a downdraft blanketed the entire village in black snow. His cats always throw up after licking their coats.

Another neighbor speaks of all the kids with bad asthma, the dogs with skin disorders. One resident wrote to the Willoughby News-Herald, complaining that her kids were blowing black snot out of their noses after playing outside in the summertime.

"I worry about black lung disease here," says Gray. "It's terrible."

He has good reason to worry about his health. If coal is coating your window screens, then it's probably doing the same to your lungs. Breathing soot causes any number of nasty afflictions, from bronchitis to heart disease to cancer.

But if you complain, there's always the obvious question, the one resident Arlan Stevenson says a FirstEnergy rep posed to him during a court hearing, after Stevenson sued the company when his living room was dusted in soot: "You're living next to a power plant. Didn't you know that?"

Even pot-stirrers like Gray have to admit that FirstEnergy -- despite its history of blacking out large sections of the country and almost microwaving Toledo -- does everything it can to make nice. It pays for neighbors to get their homes power-washed and painted over where the sulfuric ash has left yellow splotches. Once a year, it also hires a company to buff the coal off residents' cars.

And things aren't nearly as bad as they used to be. In 2002, when the Ohio EPA threatened to take action if FirstEnergy didn't control the dust from its coal pile, the company built a mesh windscreen and planted trees to buffer the neighborhood. The trains now unload in an indoor chute, instead of just dumping it on the ground, and the coal pile is regularly sprayed down with a sealant.

"They did everything they could in their power to protect us," says Hildegard, who sits on the village's Clean Air Committee. "When you call day and night, somebody is there to help you."

It's not exactly what you'd expect from the company, which isn't known for putting much stock in public relations. When Scene once called FirstEnergy about another matter, former spokesman Ralph DiNicola told us we could just "print whatever the fuck you want in that paper."

But the company can't hang up on the residents of Timberlake the way it can on a pesky reporter. It has to play neighborly.

On an overcast, humid day, a middle-aged woman with fiery red hair and the face of a teenager is having a smoke on her porch. She grew up in Timberlake, went away for a couple years, then came back and bought her own house. She loves it here that much.

"I don't even notice it, to be perfectly honest," she says when asked about the never-ending symphony of truck alarms. She drags a finger along the brick exterior of her home until it's black; then she looks at it and shrugs. "If you want to be close to the lake, [the plant] is not going anywhere," she says. "It's not that bad."

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