Residents of Toxic W.Va. Town Keep Hope Alive

Photo by Stephen Smith.

Residents of Minden, West Virginia and surrounding Fayette County have been fighting for more than three decades to get government officials to clean up extremely toxic industrial chemicals that experts have linked to the death of an unusually large number of residents in the old coal mining town.

Even though the toxic contamination was first detected in 1984, state and federal government officials have failed to protect the people of Minden, who are still getting sick and dying at unusually high rates. Minden’s population continues to decline as people move out or die. Currently, 250 people live in the community. Since 2014, about 160 people have been diagnosed or have died of cancer in the town.

Minden residents, frustrated by 35 years of ineptitude by the government, are once again banding together to ensure state and federal officials do the cleanup right this time.

The renewed activism is following in the footsteps of the work of Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County, a group formed in 1985, soon after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined the town was contaminated by unsafe levels of the industrial chemical PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyls.

Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County sought to raise awareness about the plight of local residents who were getting sick at an alarming rate. PCBs, often linked to cancer and other adverse health effects, were banned by the federal government in 1979.

Thirty-one years ago, in May 1988, Jesse Jackson visited Minden during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson, who polls showed at the time was going to lose the West Virginia primary in a landslide to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, still made the trip to Minden to demonstrate his solidarity with the people of the small West Virginia town, located about an hour southeast of the state capital of Charleston.

Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County followed up Jackson’s visit a year later by organizing a march to raise awareness of the toxic contamination of Minden. Dozens of local residents and environmentalists from out of state showed up for the 1989 march.

Last weekend, on June 8, more than 150 residents and allies marched through Minden into neighboring Oak Hill to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 march and to demonstrate their determination to finally get the town cleaned up after 35 years of botched and half-hearted efforts by federal environmental officials.

Eddie “Percy” Fruit, a lifelong resident of Minden, pushed a barrel the length of the march in homage to Lucien Randall, who did the same at the 1989 march. Randall, a co-founder of Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County, died of cancer in 1995.

“My thanks go out to Lucian Randall, Larry Rose and John David, who started out a quest to make a wrong right,” Fruit said in a speech at a rally after the march. “So many lives have been lost to cancer from PCBs. Thank you pioneers … the fight will continue.”

The Minden Community Action Team and Headwaters Defense, an environmental justice group based in Fayette County, wanted to memorialize the Minden residents who lost their lives to PCBs, to support those who are currently suffering from PCB-related illnesses and to pay tribute to the activism that first brought attention to toxic dumping in Minden in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I feel bad for the activists in the ‘80s and ‘90s who fought for Minden—most of them are gone,” Kimberly Duncan, a Minden resident who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2007 and has lost family members and neighbors to cancer, said in a speech at the rally. “The women who marched then were called hysterical housewives. But those women were right.

PCBs were used in Minden by the Shaffer Equipment Co., which built electrical substations for coal mining companies. The company often used oil with PCBs to make transformers and equipment, likely seeping it into soil. PCBs also were dumped at the Shaffer site and other areas of Minden.

The cancer-causing chemical is still leeching its way into the nearby Arbuckle creek and soil, causing ongoing sickness with cancer diagnoses. Shaffer operated in Minden from 1970 to 1984 and company workers later admitted they had stored and dumped PCBs improperly.

The new wave of activism in Minden has paid some dividends. In May, the EPA announced the contaminated West Virginia community had been added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites.

The designation will allow more federal funding to be spent on investigating the level of PCB contamination in Minden, where the EPA has a long history of failed clean-up efforts and investigations that Minden residents have said they do not trust. The designation also means local resident could get funding to move out of the town.

“Our first goal was to get on the NPL list and our next goal is to relocate, so hopefully we can stick together and we can continue to move forward in getting our goals,” Dr. Ayne Amjad, a local physician, said June 8 at the post-march rally.

Amjad’s father, Dr. Hassan Amjad, was conducting a cancer study of Minden residents when he died unexpectedly in August 2017. Ayne Amjad has continued her father’s research and has advocated on behalf of Minden residents to the EPA.

In the early 1990s, Larry Rose of Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County had asked Dr. Hassan Amjad to look into the contamination in the Minden area. That began a nearly 25-year research project by the older Amjad.

Since the founding of Concerned Citizens of Fayette County almost 35 years ago, residents have viewed relocation as an option the federal government must give homeowners in Minden. Many residents have wanted to move but cannot afford to leave because no one would be willing to buy their houses due to the toxic contamination.

“In the ‘80s, we formed Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County,” John David, a co-founder of Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County, said at the June 8 rally. “We were even talking about relocation back then. I want to thank everyone for keeping that hope alive.”

At the May 13 announcement of the National Priorities List designation, however, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told Minden residents that his agency would take a wait-and-see approach to relocation and that the EPA’s first priority will be to conduct a site remedial investigation.

Lois Gibbs, whose organizing in the community of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, in the late 1970s, led to a national emergency declaration and eventually to the creation of the EPA’s Superfund, attended both the 1989 march and the June 8 march in Minden.

In her speech at the post-march rally, Gibbs emphasized that one of the primary goals was to get the Shaffer site on the National Priorities List.

“You won that. And that opens a lot of doors to you. It opens doors for relocation. It opens doors for testing and control over that testing,” Gibbs said at the rally. “And all those doors need somebody to be pounding on them. That’s our next step. You’ve got to pound on those doors and take everything they’re offering.”

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Mark Hand is a reporter who primarily covers environmental and energy issues. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.