Town Reckons With its Toxic Past, While Looking to the EPA for Help

Jun 1, 2018

On this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll visit Minden, West Virginia, where residents are asking the federal government to consider adding their town to an official list of places most seriously contaminated by hazardous waste. But this nearly 40-year-old program’s budget has faced repeated cuts over the past 20 years. We’ll learn about how that may affect cleanup efforts for communities that are designated as U.S. Department of Environmental Protection Superfund sites.

Along the main road through Minden are dozens of small, two-bedroom homes pushed up against the winding hillsides. There isn’t a business in sight. Some homes look abandoned, several have burned to the ground. In some ways, Minden is like a lot of other small, tight-knit communities across our region. But its story also stands out, as evidenced by the bright yellow signs in some yards here. One along a chain link fence reads “PCBs Killed My Wife. Who’s Next?”

The man who lives in this home, David Miller, lost his wife to lung cancer in 2017. He says he doesn’t have the financial means to leave. He owns his own home, and he doesn’t see a chance that he could sell it. “Everybody says, you ought to just leave. Well I’m disabled. I live on a fixed income. I can’t afford rent for an apartment. You couldn’t give a house away in Minden right now. Nobody’d want to buy a house down here,” said David Miller.

In the 1980s the EPA found that a local company was responsible for contaminating the town’s soil with a harmful chemical called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The company, Shaffer Equipment, rebuilt electrical substations for the local coal mining industry. The EPA inspected the site and found several hundred transformers and other electrical equipment filled with oil containing PCBs. The EPA found elevated levels of PCBs in the soil near the Shaffer site and along a drainage ditch of a local creek.

Minden, WV

In 1984 the EPA declared a portion of land in Minden as a Superfund site, meaning it had been contaminated by hazardous waste and is a candidate for cleanup because it poses a health and environmental risk. The agency spent millions of dollars to remove the PCB contamination from the soil in Minden and has been involved in at least three different clean-up actions. But local residents say they’re concerned that the PCB contamination is still beneath the ground, and they’re asking the EPA to put their community of 250 people on the Superfund National Priorities List, the sites in greatest need of cleanup. 

Credit Shayla Klein/ WVPB

Is Minden Still Contaminated?

The EPA did soil testing again last year at  the Shaffer site, as well as near homes in Minden. The results showed the community wasn’t in need of  “immediate action” and therefore not a candidate for the National Priorities List.  The EPA has further testing planned in Minden throughout the summer to evaluate whether the Shaffer site should be put on the National Priorities List. The agency plans to make its recommendation this fall, said Melissa Linden, the EPA’s supervisor for the Shaffer site.

But even if the Shaffer site is placed on the NPL, Linden says it’s very uncommon for the EPA to relocate residents near Superfund site permanently, which is what several Minden residents interviewed by West Virginia Public Broadcasting say they want. Sometimes, the EPA will temporarily relocate people while a site is being cleaned up, a process that can take more than 20 years in some cases.

Branson England, 12-year-old Minden resident.
Credit Brittany Patterson/ WVPB

Residents here think cancer rates are connected to the tainted soil. But West Virginia University cancer researcher Dr. Sarah Knox, said proving these claims for a small community of 250 people like Minden would be time consuming, expensive, and difficult. “Because there are different physiological processes involved in cancer and different factors that affect these things. You have to really do a strictmethodological study over a period of time to try and differentiate the clusters from the non-clusters and to see if the clusters are just chance, which they can be.” And finding funding to study cancer in Minden is almost impossible - cancer research funds tend to go to bigger projects with broader impact on more people.

The concerns over contamination have reached even Minden’s youngest residents. Branson England, 12, designed a video game world modeled after his town. On his computer, he navigated through a brightly colored stretch of  mansions—representing where richer people live not far from his town.. Then he points his cursor through a maze of coffins, lined up along the ground. This, he said, is Minden part.

“I'm 12 years old, I'm not supposed to be dealing with this,” he said. “I'm supposed to be at home doing my homework, my video games, but other than that, not have to worry about if I'm going to die tomorrow because all the contamination. It’s just not normal for a kid.”

Inside Appalachia is produced by Roxy Todd. Jesse Wright is our executive producer. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Catherine Moore edited this episode. We’d love to hear from you. Send us tweet @InAppalachia.