Sen. Joe Manchin is urging officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency to provide resources to Minden, a Fayette County town that is contaminated by the industrial chemical PCBs.

In response to Minden residents' reports of higher cancer rates, Manchin also urged HHS Secretary Alex Azar to conduct more research into the link between PCBs and cancer and has urged EPA Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio to visit Minden.

“Since 1984, Minden has been designated as a Superfund site by the EPA because it was contaminated with PCBs by an industrial facility," Manchin said Monday. "While the EPA continues to take action to assist the residents of Minden, I am gravely concerned about the reports stating that cancer rates are significantly higher in Minden than the rest of Fayette County.

"However, the EPA and the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health have not been able to establish that PCB exposure from the Superfund site is responsible for these high cancer rates or for a cancer cluster in this small, rural Appalachia town despite the extraordinary circumstances."

Months after officials with the state Cancer Registry said statistics don't support a cancer cluster in Minden and after an official with the HHS Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) said that there is not enough evidence to support a link between most human cancers and PCB exposure, Manchin said additional research is necessary.

"I have asked Secretary Azar to direct the National Toxicology Program and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct additional research into the link between PCBs and cancer," Manchin said. "It is important for us to fully understand the public health implications of the link between PCBs and cancer in order to develop a plan to protect those who have been exposed to these dangerous chemicals."

Minden residents and former residents have said they suffer an extremely high number of cancers and other illnesses. The area hosted Shaffer's Equipment Co., where workers illegally disposed of PCB in the 1970s and 1980s. EPA and ATSDR have a lengthy history in Minden, including a failed cleanup effort. 

EPA is currently investigating whether Shaffer's should be added to the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites, making Minden residents eligible for relocation services. Many residents have requested relocation, saying they live in fear for their lives and health.

The late physician Dr. Hassan Amjad criticized EPA, ATSDR and state health officials for what he characterized as gross incompetence and negligence in investigating the impact of PCB exposure on the health of Minden residents. Amjad, who died in August, said PCB exposure had caused cancer in a number of residents. He had began a study to prove the link and told The Register-Herald that many of the Shaffer's workers he had located had died of cancer or been treated for it.

His daughter, physician Ayne Amjad, is continuing the study.

PCB is listed by EPA as a probable human carcinogen, but many forms of cancer in humans cannot currently be directly linked to PCB. More research is needed.

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Just days before Manchin's request, a controversial sewer construction project by the City of Oak Hill in Minden left residents fearful and angry when a backhoe operator cracked open a leaking underground tank about a mile from Shaffer's. The tank was on land owned by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service.

Jake Glance, WVDEP communications director, said the single tank is a 150-gallon unit that also contained approximately 20 gallons of an unidentified solid material, in addition to 50 gallons of unidentified liquid.

"WVDEP is still waiting for the lab results to confirm what was inside the undeground tank that was discovered by the contractor crew," Glance explained. "We can't comment on the potential impact of the substance until we know for sure what it is."

Minden residents oppose the $23 million project, which Oak Hill, WVDEP and EPA officials say will reduce fecal contamination in Arbuckle Creek, which feeds the New River, and will not pose a health risk to residents. Minden residents say they live in fear that PCB, which they believe has caused widespread cancer and disease in the area, will be spread due to construction.

Minden was annexed into Oak Hill to qualify for state funding for the sewer project. Many Minden residents adamantly opposed the annexation.

On Monday, some residents took aim at federal, state and local officials for failing to better protect the people of Minden, who have asked for the construction project to be stopped.

"The people of Minden have been telling the City of Oak Hill, the DEP and EPA that this stuff was buried everywhere at unmarked and unauthorized sites away from the Shaffer Equipment site," said Brandon Richardson, founder of Headwaters Defense, a group that opposes the sewer project. "This tank was found almost a mile away from the site in question.

"We recommended that these institutions assume that all of Minden is contaminated so that they would be prepared for these types of events," he added. "It is obvious that the City of Oak Hill, the DEP and EPA are incapable of exercising precaution.

"Minden residents are paying for their mistakes."

Richardson said WVDEP and the City of Oak Hill do not directly inform citizens of potential health risks.

"The community is learning about the potential spread of contamination and attack on their health through word of mouth and first-hand experiences with health problems," he said. "The lack of transparency, while not surprising from these institutions, shows how unimportant Minden residents' concerns are and have been to our government."

Annetta Coffman, 43, of Minden, said residents are "threatened" by the sewer pipe line project.

"Residents complained of a weird smell the day before that (tank incident) happened," she said. "It is very frightening for the man who encountered it and also those of us who live there.

"This is being pushed down our throats, and none of these people pushing it have any compassion or concern about the residents here," she added. "I do believe they will find more tanks; however, it's already confirmed all the oil spread out there."

She said the City of Oak Hill has demonstrated a disregard for Minden residents.

"I was told someone from the city called Minden 'the realms of hell,'" she reported. "Well, it sure is ... but not how they meant it."

Glance of WVDEP published the state plan for dealing with any future discoveries of tanks at Minden.

"If more underground tanks are discovered during the construction of the sewer line, WVDEP’s Homeland Security and Emergency Response will respond accordingly and appropriately – as it did in this case," he said. "Our main goal is to ensure that there is no danger to the public health or to the environment, the same as it is any time a potentially hazardous situation arises."

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