Photograph by Megan Erbacher
Rockport, Ind., activist Rex Winchell says decision-makers in Spencer County and the State of Indiana are more interested in maintaining their power and making money than in protecting Hoosiers' health. He's a founding member of the Spencer County Citizens for Quality of Life and has been a 16-year volunteer at Spencer County Hospice.
ROCKPORT, IND. -- Rex Winchell would satisfy just about any conceivable interpretation of the Hoosier colloquialism tough old bird. The 84-year-old Rockport citizen speaks proudly of the decade he spent in the military and working with military outfits in North America and Europe. When relating a story about an unpleasant conversation he recently had with a local public official, he says he's glad it was on the telephone and not in person.
"I probably would have spent a little time in the pokey," he says, "because I would have made a change in his face or some other portion of his anatomy."
Winchell is similarly blunt when talking about those who sanction and operate the 17 coal-fired power plants in what he calls Indiana's "Polluted Triangle," from Terre Haute to Tell City to Evansville and back to Terre Haute.
"If I walked out here on the streets of Rockport, Ind., and blew away as many as 15 people," he says, "... I'd end up either having my hide fried or a term of life in prison. But, to have people poison slowly the entire population of an area." His voice trails off at the notion.
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A founding member of the citizens action group Spencer County Citizens for Quality of Life, Winchell expresses nothing but disdain for those who have turned his community -- he was born on Elm Street -- into a refuge for some of the nastiest polluters on the planet. He refers to their ilk as "vested interests, people who don't give a hoot for anything except the almighty buck."
Just a few miles east of Winchell's desk in the Spencer County Hospice office on the Courthouse Square sit two objects of his scorn -- American Electric Power's (AEP) Rockport Power Plant and the AK Steel production plant. In Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these two facilities reported combined releases of more than 25 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, water and land in 2008 alone.
"They pour out enough toxic pollutants in a year's time to affect the health of the entire area," he says, "not just here, but farther out than that."
And as a guy with lifelong roots in the region who serves terminally ill patients, Winchell has witnessed what he is convinced are the consequences. "This area is just rampant with cancer, of all sizes, shapes and descriptions," he says. "To some extent or another, I'm sure that this toxic pollution has something to do with that."
Rex Winchell was born in Spencer County and will most likely die there, but he hasn't spent his entire life on the banks of the Ohio River across from Owensboro, Ky. After graduating from high school in 1943, he went to Purdue University for one year and then spent the last year of World War II in the Army. Upon his return to civilian life, he earned a bachelor's degree from Indiana University in 1948 and went to work for the Allison Division of General Motors.
Through Allison, Winchell spent a year in California, seven-and-a-half months with an air force squadron in Goose Bay, Canada, and 19 months with the Italian Air Force at an instrument training base in Foggia. After returning to California, he spent five more years working with the Naval Air Forces.
"I came back here in 1961 and finished my requirements for public school teaching," he says. "I taught public school for 27 years."
Winchell spent his teaching career in Spencer County and Evansville. After retirement, he worked four years for the Bureau of the Census, which only fed his Republican roots and ended with a resignation of conscience. "My friend, if you want to know everything that our federal government gets into with its big beak and its big ear, well, the Bureau of the Census is that beak, is that ear," he says contemptuously.
When his sense of correctness got the best of him, Winchell quit the Census. But his superiors responded that he couldn't. His departure took three months.
"At that time," he says, speaking of 1994, "I thought, 'I want to do something that has a little more meaningful goal. I had been instrumental in starting our hospice, so I decided to be a hospice volunteer."
In addition to the cancers Winchell sees through his work at hospice, especially bone and pancreatic, he says the area is plagued with child health problems, like asthma and other respiratory problems. Childhood cancer? "Yes," he says, lowering his voice to a barely audible whisper, "there's been some of that."
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) collects and publishes cancer statistics called "State Cancer Profiles." The federal agency, however, urges caution in interpreting the data, especially when trying to link "exposure to environmental carcinogens" to local and state rates. Other explanations, such as age, race or ethnicity, and lifestyle are often more likely causes, it says.
The small population bases in many of the Ohio Valley counties likewise make conclusions difficult. Incidence rates measured per 100,000 population produce wildly variable results in sparsely populated areas, like Spencer County. With just over 20,000 citizens calling it home, NCI data say, the county's cancer incidence is 404.4 per 100,000, but it could be as high as 442.6.
The national rate is 455.9 per 100,000; Indiana's is 463.7.
Overall, the cancer incidence rate in the 19 Indiana counties that sit two-deep along the Ohio -- 449.4 per 100,000 -- is also below state and national averages. And counties like Gibson, Spencer, Warrick and Pike on the Valley's west end, which are home to enormous, largely unregulated, often antiquated, out-of-compliance coal-fired power plants, have incidence rates far below the state average, ranging from 381.4 in Gibson to 407.7 in Pike.
Individually, however, more than half -- 10 of 19 counties -- have cancer rates above the national average, and every one of them sits in the Valley's east end, upwind of the power plants Winchell says toxify the Polluted Triangle.
On this sunny Friday afternoon in July, Winchell has retreated from his desk directly inside the hospice front door and sits at a long, narrow table in a long, narrow room in the back. The wall behind him is bare. His hands rest on a pile of Spencer County Journal Democrats, a weekly newspaper published in Rockport, and Spencer County Leaders, another weekly that is actually published in Dubois County. "They have an office in Dale, Ind.," he says.
Outside on the square, locals gather beneath a shade tree and talk vegetables with a handful of farmers who comprise the afternoon farmers' market. Situated above a riverside park flanked with a sandstone bluff, the Spencer County Courthouse isn't ringed with lawyers offices, insurance agencies, cafes and other retail storefronts like most Indiana county seats. The retail center extends away from the river along Main Street, across from the Courthouse entrance, and sports only a couple empty spaces, one of which has a building permit posted in the window.
Winchell says he's not a "rabid environmentalist," and starts to explain. "In fact, if I had my say about it." He gets sidetracked with a war story about France and never finishes the thought. His lapse is not a sign of age, by any means. Winchell speaks deliberately and articulately throughout an hour-long conversation, especially when he explains his evolution into and experiences as an octogenarian activist.
"I got tired of hosing down my windows and my siding that I have on my home," he says, "and watching all this black crud come down." What really spurred his activism, Winchell continues, was a proposal from Indiana Gasification LLC to build a synthetic gas plant in Spencer County. The proposed facility would convert coal into synthetic gas, or "syngas."
"You know, enough is enough," he demands. "They say, 'Well, it's not going to be all that much.' Well, every little bit over a period of years adds up to the point where it's really getting bad."
He compares the Ohio Valley to Germany's Ruhr River Valley back in the '60s, where steel mill and power plant pollution, at high noon, created driving conditions similar to the heavy fog banks he experienced in the mountains of Italy. "Those were the kind of power plants like we have here at Rockport."
While AEP's Rockport plant is "one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of its kind here in the United States," Winchell says it's but one piece of the region's pollution puzzle. Just across the river on the edge of Owensboro sits a "humongous" coal-fired municipal power plant, he explains. "There are I think three power plants at the Alcoa Plant between Evansville and Rockport."
And coal-related pollution sources upwind of Rockport are on the rise, Winchell notes. Kentucky has approved a 720-megawatt syngas plant called Cash Creek in Henderson, across from Evansville. A similar 618-megawatt Duke Energy plant is under construction in Edwardsport in Indiana's Knox County.
According to a June 26 Indianapolis Business Journal article, Edwardsport is "the world's largest coal gasification plant under construction" and is projected to cost $2.9 billion, 53 percent more than when it was proposed in 2006.
A Sept. 8, 2009, news release from Citizens Action Coalition, Valley Watch and Sierra Club charged the Edwardsport plant "will violate air quality standards for a dangerous and harmful form of pollution known as fine particulate matter, or soot, which can lodge deep inside the lungs and cause serious health problems."
"This goes on and on," Winchell says of the region's coal-powered pollution.
A foundry in Tell City wants to site a landfill in Spencer County for its industrial wastes. According to its TRI reports submitted to EPA, the Thyssenkrupp Waupaca Plant 5 on State Highway 66 released 2.17 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment in 2008. All were "primary metals," in EPA vernacular, including barium, benzene, copper, mercury, lead, manganese, nickel, toluene and zinc.
And Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana power structure are pushing underground sequestration of carbon dioxide from coal plants.
"With all the faults and the potential for this stuff going who knows where," Winchell says, "I don't know, some of these people, they gotta be," after a long pause he finishes, "freaky."
Indeed Indiana business and government leaders rankle Winchell more than the pollution. "They're more interested in maintaining the power structure than they are in the welfare of this nation or this state," he says.
State agencies, like the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), "are at the beck and call of elected politicians," who serve the polluters, he says. Of state legislators, he practically growls, "That bunch. I hesitate to call them what they really are."
The coal barons and the unions, "They could care less, as long as they've got a job."
And local decision-makers aren't any better and sometimes worse. As a former member of the Spencer County Advisory Plan Commission, he speaks from experience. "I was sort of a laughingstock of my colleagues on the advisory plan commission," he says. "They just couldn't conceive that anybody would be stupid enough to think about the welfare, the general welfare of people, you know, and their health."
"They pour out enough toxic pollutants in a year's time to affect the health of the entire area." - Rex Winchell, Spencer County Citizens for Quality of Life
When polluting industries like AK Steel seek to establish plants in a community, they make all sorts of grand promises, mostly about local jobs, he says. But once they're in, they bring people in from the outside.
Local officials promise property tax reductions. But the plants receive tax abatement schedules that don't produce reductions for citizens until the plants are ready to shut down.
"It's a matter, I think, of just swallowing hook line and sinker everything that is promised," Winchell says.
Sometimes it's more than naivete.
Winchell lost his appointment to the Advisory Plan Commission after writing a letter to the editor alleging that one of the three Spencer County Commissioners had sold an option on land he owned for the Rockport syngas plant. Another commissioner, he says, "calls me up and said that I had accused him."
The two traded words, over the phone, so Winchell didn't wind up in the pokey. But he did express himself.
"I was in the military for five years, and I have a vocabulary," he says." I don't use it very often, but I told him not only where to go but what to do when he got there. And that's why I'm not a member of the advisory plan commission for Spencer County anymore."
Steven Higgs can be reached at .