For decades, since a local company dumped untold amounts of industrial chemicals nearby, residents of Minden, W.Va., have been searching for answers.
Year after year, they say, this once-thriving coal town an hour south of the state capital has experienced an alarming number of cancers and other health issues. The roughly 250 people who remain have long suspected that the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, discovered throughout the area have played a role in sickening residents.
While state and federal investigators have said that repeated tests have yet to establish those links — and might never give definitive answers — those pushing for action in Minden won a notable victory Tuesday when the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the location to its "National Priorities List" for cleanup. The site is among six that the EPA is proposing to add to its Superfund list, which consists of the country's most toxic sites.
"Cleaning up sites that pose risks to public health and the environment is a critical part of our mission," the EPA's acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, said in a statement.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) also praised the move, saying in a statement that "ongoing study will determine the best way to move forward and ensure that the threat to public health and the environment is finally eliminated."
From the early 1970s until 1984, the Shaffer Equipment Co. in Minden built electrical equipment for the local coal-mining industry, including transformers and capacitors that used oil containing PCBs. The chemicals, which can linger for years in air, water and soil, have been banned since 1979, and the EPA classifies them as a “probable human carcinogen.”
When the state Division of Natural Resources inspected the site in 1984, officials discovered several hundred discarded transformers and capacitors. Investigators also found that Shaffer had buried or dumped PCB-laced oil in drums and other containers there, as well as in abandoned mines, according to federal court documents. Some had leaked.
The EPA undertook several rounds of cleanups in Minden, beginning in 1984. The agency eventually hauled away nearly 5,000 tons of soil and removed dozens of drums. Workers have returned over the years to remove more barrels of chemical and place an earthen “cap” over the Shaffer site.
In recent years, local activists who had been tracking cancer deaths in the town began a renewed push for answers. Federal regulators agreed last year to return for more rounds of soil samples. So far, according to the EPA, the tests “continue to show PCBs but do not indicate an immediate threat to human health."
Ayne Amjad, a doctor who has been helping research health problems in the town, said Tuesday's news that the former Shaffer site and part of nearby Arbuckle Creek could be added to the Superfund list is a first step toward what she hopes will be a relocation of the residents who remain.
"Things have been stalled so long," Amjad said. "I'm still crossing my fingers to see if we make it on the actual [National Priorities List]. But overall, I feel like something has been accomplished."
Lifelong Minden resident Susie Worley-Jenkins reacted to the announcement partly with optimism, and partly with the skepticism that has come to define many residents who have spent decades hoping for closure.
"We’re happy that something is happening, but we’re not jumping up and down. You don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth," she said. But she added that she has one abiding wish for her family and neighbors in Minden: to get out.