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Former steelworker hopes $2 billion chemical plant will revive Appalachia city

Jason Cohn / Reuters

First year apprentice ironworker George Vacheresse pauses during a class at Ironworkers Local 539 in Wheeling, West Virginia. Vacheresse was a steelworker for 17 years but decided to retrain after watching layoffs erode the workforce at his machinist shop over 17 years. He hopes his new skills will lead to a much higher-paying job.

Jason Cohn / Reuters

The town of Wheeling, West Virginia is emblematic of the economically struggling region it sits in, and could get a big boost from a new Shell chemical plant planned for the area. Real estate agents, restaurants, banks and others report a business jump that they expect to be made permanent by the arrival of chemical plants.

Reuters reports from Wheeling, West Virginia — In George Vacheresse's lifetime, Appalachia has fallen from its prime when steel mills and coal mines anchored middle-class communities and offered hope there always would be enough work to go around.

In this historically poor region nestled in the misty mountains of the eastern United States, most steel mills shut down long ago and the coal workforce has shrunk by 90 percent in the past 40 years.

Now Vacheresse and other residents are counting on cheap natural gas from the massive reserves in the Marcellus and Utica shale rock formations to reinvigorate the region's economy.

In the Northern Appalachia area alone, where West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania converge, billions of dollars of investment is planned by major companies, including most recently Royal Dutch Shell, to recover the gas and build new chemical plants.

"I hope it gives us jobs for everybody," said Vacheresse, 39, who last fall joined an apprentice scheme at a Wheeling, iron workers' labor union to learn how to work in steel construction. He made the move after watching layoffs erode the workforce at his machinist shop over 17 years. He expects his new skills will lead to a much higher-paying job building Shell's planned new $2 billion cracker, industry slang for a chemical plant.

"Something like this could carry our region for years and years," he said. Read the full story.

Jason Cohn / Reuters

Charles Comas, owner of Comas Family Barber Shop on Main Street in Wheeling, West Virginia, finishes giving a hair cut to regular customer John Oliver on March 6, 2012. Oliver, who has lived in Wheeling his whole life, remembers when the now sparsely occupied downtown was so packed with people "you couldn't walk down the street without bumping into someone." He is skeptical that the burgeoning shale gas industry or the rumoured Shell cracker plant will help the city.

Jason Cohn / Reuters

A community garden is seen in a vacant lot left over from one of few demolished buildings on Main Street in Wheeling, West Virginia. The city is struggling to find creative ways to deal with their down economy while waiting for new investment.

Jason Cohn / Reuters

First year Ironworker apprentices (left-right) Ian Welshhans, Daniel Truax and Jason Taylor practice their welding skills during a class at the Ironworkers Local 549 training facility in Wheeling, West Virginia on March 6, 2012.

Jason Cohn / Reuters

An old Ohio Edison electric plant, rumored to be the site for the first new U.S. chemical cracker plant in more than 20 years, is seen across the Ohio river from Moundsville, West Virginia.