In today's economy, it's hard to walk away from a paycheck when you work in the underground utility business, Ohio businessman Tom Enyart said Thursday, but that's what Enyart's company did when the owners suspected that one of its projects had the potential to harm a small West Virginia community.
Tribute Contracting and Consultants in South Point, Ohio, recently pulled out of a deal with the City of Oak Hill to lay sewer pipes near a site in Minden contaminated by the industrial chemical PCB.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently discovered four additional sites of PCB contamination in Minden and will be conducting future testing for PCB contamination throughout Minden and nearby Concho.
Citing fears that construction would release more contamination into their neighborhoods, Minden residents had asked Oak Hill officials in September to halt construction until EPA testing was completed, but Oak Hill City Council denied requests and voted to proceed with construction.
Tribute was hired on the Minden sewer project, which is headed by the West Virginia-based Thrasher Engineering.
"With the underground utilities, it's hard to get a job anymore because there's less and less out there, just with the problems with the lack of money," Enyart said Thursday. "We just want to do the right thing. That's what we want to do.
"We'd like to see more testing done where the line is to be laid, that we're to be installing," Enyart added. "That's why we pulled out.
"We are a company that, we do pay attention, and we respect the area that we work in and, in return, the people that live there. It's not always about the dollar."
Residents of Minden have asked West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to petition federal officials to have Minden placed on the National Priorities list, an EPA superfund list that would make them eligible for federal relocation services and that would prioritize a cleanup of the land.
Minden is home to the Shaffer's Equipment Company site, where PCB contamination was discovered in 1984. Recent testing by the EPA showed PCB contamination in actionable levels at four sites in Minden, including the yards of two residents.
EPA agents also discovered several contaminants, including pesticides, at a former dump site in Concho, which is above Minden. The spot is on a plot of property owned by Concho Land Co., a business that shares officers with ACE Resort, a multimillion-dollar resort located in Concho and the only major business in the Minden region.
Enyart said his business partner, Todd Harrah, has been in contact with Oak Hill city officials since Tribute announced Wednesday that they would not work on the project.
"We're trying to figure out what our next step will be," Enyart said. "We don't want to put our guys in harm there, as well as harming anybody else there."
Minden residents vehemently oppose the sewer project. Over the past three years, citizens Susie Worley-Jenkins and Darrell "Butter" Thomas have reported more than 100 cases of cancer among the 251 residents of the town. The late Oak Hill physician Dr. Hassan Amjad was conducting an extensive study of the impact of PCB on the health of current and former residents of Minden at the time of his death on Aug. 29.
Prior to his death, Amjad had repeatedly told The Register-Herald that PCB caused cancer in current and former Minden residents and that the contamination in Minden was being ignored by local, state and federal officials.
The phyisician was a proponent of relocation for those who currently live in Minden.
Minden residents say that publicizing the PCB issue could deter tourists from visiting resorts in Fayette County, which is an international destination for whitewater rafting and other outdoor activities.
Worley-Jenkins, Thomas and Brandon Richardson, the founder of Headwaters Defense, a local environmental rights group that opposes the sewer project, have alleged that state and local officials ignored the contamination in Minden for decades to promote tourism in the area.
In 2014, ACE Resort, a multimillion-dollar water park and resort located on a cliff above Minden, had asked Fayette County Commission to make upgrades to a sewer plant at Minden, located in what was then Arbuckle Public Service District. An ACE representative told county officials that the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection had denied ACE a permit to construct an upscale lodge on nearby property because the Arbuckle sewer plant could not withstand the additional flow.
In order to get state funding to upgrade the Arbuckle plant and make upgrades to an Oak Hill sewer plant, the City of Oak Hill annexed Minden against residents' wishes and proceeded with the sewer construction project, which Minden residents oppose.
Under the plan, those in Minden see an extra surcharge on their sewer bill from Oak Hill until a portion of the Arbuckle upgrades is repaid.
"They'd rather have us killed off than hurt the rafting industry," Thomas said. "The rafting industry is a big economic thing around here.
"If they know this PCB is going in the water down there, are they (tourists) going to go down there and swim it and raft around in it? They'd just rather see 250 killed off than hurt the rafting industry," Thomas charged. "It's too much money involved."
Dr. Ayne Amjad has taken over her father's study and offers a free health clinic to residents of Minden.
Amjad is also a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives seat now held by Delegate Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va.
Thrasher Engineering told media outlets Wednesday that Thrasher will continue to work with the city on the sewer upgrade in Minden.
Enyart said that he and Harrah had been unaware of the PCB contamination when Tribute placed a bid with the city to take the job.
"We're an Ohio contractor, so, no, we didn't know anything about it when we were bidding the project," he said.
He added that he could not pinpoint the moment when he heard about the PCB contamination or who had informed Tribute officers of the PCB.
Worley-Jenkins said Tuesday that she was grateful for Enyart's decision to withdraw from the project.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes only melanoma as a human cancer with a direct link to PCB exposure, according to officials with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Officials of the West Virginia Cancer Registry, a CDC-funded operation, said in October that state data does not show reason to suspect that PCB is causing a cancer cluster in Minden and that the small, economically impoverished town shows higher numbers of the two cancers that are most common in West Virginia, lung cancer and breast cancer.
Some statistics kept by the state Bureau of Public Health show that in the 1990s, the cancer death rate in Minden spiked to four times higher than that in the rest of Fayette County and was more than double the county cancer death rate from 1979 to 2016.
A spokeswoman for ATSDR, which conducts health surveys on contaminated communities and shares administrative functions with CDC, said in October that a conclusive cancer death rate study on Minden would be impossible to qualify since there are so few residents in the town and even a minor mistake could result in highly skewed results.
Richardson of Headwaters Defense has asked ATSDR to provide an alternative solution for identifying the higher cancer deaths reported by Minden residents.
For his part, Oak Hill City Manager Bill Hannabass said in November that motives were pure when the sewer construction project was launched.
Hannabass had learned in 2008 that Arbuckle Creek was being contaminated with fecal coliform by the Oak Hill plant and, to a larger degree, the Arbuckle plant, he said. The creek feeds the New River.
Concerned about the environment and the impact on local citizens and tourists, Hannabass pitched a deal to the state which would allow the city to draw down state DEP funding to upgrade the Oak Hill sewer plant, but state officials nixed it.
In 2014, DEP officials agreed to loan more than $20 million to the city for Oak Hill upgrades, if city officials would annex Minden, dissolve Arbuckle PSD and take over operations of Arbuckle, a PSD that had been plagued with embezzlement, unpaid fines, unpaid loans and an inadequate billing system. City council members approved the annexation and the sewer project.
The plan to clean up one environmental problem in Oak Hill, Minden and the New River, however, inadvertently dug a pathway through another major contamination site at Shaffer's, a now-defunct mine equipment repair shop which illegally stored and dumped PCB, an industrial waste.
Hanabass said in October that construction crews are working with EPA agents to ensure that they don't disrupt previously identified PCB sites and that workers will take safety precautions to reduce risk of exposure.