A Texas gas company's pledge to build a hydrogen power plant on the site of a former uranium enrichment facility in Piketon has elicited applause and skepticism in equal measure.
Newpoint Gas, based in Columbus, Texas, signed a letter of intent in mid-May to build the facility, which would provide 300 megawatts of power and produce emissions-free hydrogen fuel.
Residents expressing guarded optimism about reindustrializing the site, which is undergoing a cleanup to make it usable after decades of radioactive contamination, say they've heard promises before without any action.
"We are constantly seeing these possibilities, or these headlines or these announcements for this facility once it's cleaned up, but we never see those things come to fruition," said Megan Williams, a lifelong Piketon resident and treasurer of the Scioto Valley Local School District.
Williams stressed that she isn't opposed to the hydrogen project.
"The people of Pike County deserve a living wage and jobs that don't require them to drive two hours to work in Columbus," she said.
Pike County Commissioner Jerry Miller said he remains optimistic companies will eventually relocate to the community to replace lost jobs, but only if the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which operated the enrichment plant, declares it safe.
"Without DOE's assurance and assistance, we won't be able to reindustrialize or grow in Pike County because of the stigma of having that facility located here," he said.
Hydrogen technology's potential
Newpoint Gas said construction will create around 500 jobs, followed by at least 100 permanent production jobs by early 2027, although a company representative said that number could grow. Still, 100 permanent workers is just a fraction of the more than 2,000 people working to clean the uranium enrichment facility site, which shuttered in 2001. Crews are tearing down the facility, a process which could last until 2019.
"When you remove those types of jobs from an economically depressed area, it has an immediate and substantial impact," Miller said.
Hydrogen is procured from natural gas through carbon capture, a controversial weapon in the fight against climate change. While hydrogen fuel itself is emissions-free, the natural gas it comes from is not, and environmentalists disagree over whether its use would result in a net reduction of planet-warming emissions.
And hydrogen is expensive, proponents and critics agree. But Newpoint is convinced it can make hydrogen work.
"It's feasible, but it has to be done at a very large scale," Newpoint founder and CEO Wiley Rhodes said.
The power generation will justify the investments needed to build the plant, and excess hydrogen will be sold to manufacturers looking to reduce their carbon footprint, he said.
While hydrogen hasn't gained widespread use, Rhodes noted the technology it relies on, carbon capture, is decades old.
"There's nothing that is new that we're doing," he said.
Some residents doubt that hydrogen plant will be built
Job creation promises are familiar to Ohio's Appalachian region, which includes Piketon. And those pledges often don't pan out.
"It seems like there's been announcement after announcement after announcement and all of it fizzles," said Jennifer Chandler, Piketon's village administrator and the president of the Scioto Valley-Piketon Area Council of Governments.
A coalition of energy companies, for example, was supposed to build five petrochemical plants in a region of Appalachia that includes southern Ohio in the 2010s. Only one was finished.
A letter of intent, though a preliminary filing, creates a clear signal that Newpoint wants to build the hydrogen facility, experts said.
"It would alert financiers and funders that they intend to move forward with this project, and it would initiate a formal due diligence process," said Grant Goodrich, executive director of the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve University.
Now comes the hard part.
The project depends on the price of natural gas – which fluctuates – along with the thorough decontamination of a radioactive site, said Mark Partridge, the Swank Chair of Rural-Urban Policy at Ohio State University.
"When it comes to large energy projects, there are a lot of initial announcements, but in the end not very many of these things are actually done," he said.
An energy company can use a letter of intent to convince workers in an economically depressed region to lobby for them and put political pressure on elected officials, Partridge said.
But he is doubtful the facility will be built.
Goodrich is more positive.
"There's a lot that still has to happen, but this is a positive first step toward developing the project," he said.
Is Piketon site safe?
Before Newpoint can acquire the necessary permits, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency must certify that the site is no longer a danger to workers, said Kevin Shoemaker, in-house counsel for the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative, an economic development group that owns the land and is working with Newpoint Gas.
The area can be decontaminated, but it must be done right, said David Manuta, the plant's former chief scientist.
"If the initial clean-up doesn't go deep enough into the soil, then contamination percolates back to the surface years later," he said.
Years of lax safety practices at the enrichment site, along with higher-than-usual cancer rates in the surrounding communities, give others pause.
"There's contamination on-site and off-site, so how can they put anything on the site that's going to be safe for workers?" asked Vina Colley, a former worker at the plant who co-founded National Nuclear Workers for Justice and Portsmouth/Piketon Residents for Environmental Safety and Security.
"Demolition of the former gaseous diffusion plants and other cleanup activities at the site are conducted with rigorous controls and standards that are protective of community and the environment," a DOE spokesperson said in an email.
"Working closely with Ohio EPA, the community, and others, DOE has finalized regulatory decisions, completed interim remediation actions, and is conducting ongoing monitoring to ensure the site is safe for reindustrialization."
Air and water monitors miles from the property have detected radioactive contaminants in the air, water and soil. DOE officials have long assured the public that contaminants fall within safe levels, but skeptics like Colley find their assurances unconvincing.
Manuta hopes the department at least provides clear goals for decontaminating the site.
"When they say it's clean, what does that really mean?" he said.
Some Piketon residents, in the meantime, believe they are owed an employer who can replace the middle-class jobs the enrichment plant offered, along with a safe and unspoiled community to live in.
"For most of us, this is our home and we don't have anywhere else to go, and a lot of people don't have the resources to move," Williams said. "No one should have to sacrifice their health in order to have a living wage."