minden — A Republican Congressional hopeful joined Minden residents Friday in pleading with state and federal officials to help the citizens of this small Fayette County town, where the United States Environmental Protection Agency discovered PCB contamination more than 30 years ago.
Tearfully, sometimes angrily, residents of Minden stood one by one at the front of the New Beginning Apostolic Church and told gathered agents from EPA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR), West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), the State Bureau of Public Health, West Virginia Cancer Registry and others that they watch family members and neighbors die of various cancers.
EPA officials said testing of soil in December does not show PCB contamination at a level that is dangerous to residents, but those in the room disagreed.
One by one, they closed their speeches with the same message.
“PCB kills communities,” they said. “It’s killing Minden.
“We need justice for Minden. Relocate us, now!”
Brandon Richardson, the founder of the grassroots environmental group Headwaters Defense, reported prior to the meeting that more than 120 cancer deaths have plagued Minden since 2015.
He also reported 22 recent cancer deaths among residents of Terry Avenue, an Oak Hill street located on a cliffside above Minden. Slate fires on PCB-laden soil smoldered below Terry Avenue in Minden for nearly 20 years.
The West Virginia Cancer Registry reports only 81 cases of cancer between 1993 to 2015, but Minden residents told a different story on Friday.
Susie Worley recalled the 800-gallon drums of PCB oil that mine workers had overturned into the mines above their little valley decades ago, and residents told of how the oil still flows from the earth and rides flood waters into their yards.
Minden dwellers talked about the autoimmune disorders and kidney tumors in their enclave and of the unusual health issues that Minden children faced. A high school boy stopped growing and developed osteoporosis, the result of a pituitary brain tumor. A college student who had lived in Minden until age 8 stated that she was 16 when she’d felt milk leaking from one of her breasts, also the result of a pituitary brain tumor. Now 20, she is on medicine that shrinks the tumor but lives in fear that, one day, the medicine will stop working.
One 15-year-old girl said she lives in fear that she would get sick and be unable to fulfill her dream of working in the medical field to help those who, like her neighbors, were ill.
They walked to the front of the church and reported miscarriages, deadly polycystic kidney disease, skin cysts, liver disease and infertility. Their dogs died of cancer. They found cysts on pets’ legs.
For nearly 40 years, they said, their government has watched as PCB has wreaked havoc in their community. When they’ve asked for help, they said, government officials have instead given them statistics and “official” reasons about why their situation doesn’t warrant aid of any kind.
Meanwhile, they’ve died.
“I can stand on my porch, and there are 35 people on one side of the road, and they’re dead,” said Annetta Coffman, 43, of Minden. “They’re dead, of cancer, every single one of them.
“I have no neighbors left,” added Coffman. “We do feel like it’s just OK for us to be extinct at some point, and it’s not. We want people to take it serious.
“There are a lot of sick people here, and I know we’re going to be told there’s no correlation between the PCBs and cancer,” Coffman said. “The people who live here know that’s not true.”
Along the road leading into the church, they’d listed the names of their cancer survivors and their dead on handmade signs: Cora Coffman, Eloise Worley, Bill Hewitt, Gary Comer and around 300 more men and women who had once lived in Minden.
The names appeared alongside hand-written signs warning that Minden is “toxic,” a line of caution for tourists on their way to a multi-million dollar resort nestled on a cliffside above Minden.
Republican Congressional candidate Dr. Ayne Amjad, a former employee of NIOSH and current Beckley physician, told federal and state officials that she’d worked with statistics and numbers and understood their process but urged them to use more empathy in their work at Minden.
“A common sense person will look around Minden and say, ‘That’s not normal,’” she said. “I don’t care who you are, or what kind of education you have...I live in a community of about 400 people.
“I don’t look around and point out people with cancer.”
Amjad backed residents’ claims that the number of cancer cases in Minden is higher. For the past several months, she has worked with Minden patients to advance a health study her late father, physician Dr. Hassan Amjad, had started.
Hassan Amjad believed PCB exposure caused a higher cancer rate in Minden. He was conducting a study of the cases when he died unexpectedly in August.
Ayne Amjad, who is running for U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins’ current seat, on Friday took aim at federal and state agents and at Gov. Justice, whom she said had been invited to the meeting.
“They want your help,” she told officials. “They’re begging for your help.
“We’ve been begging our governor for help. He doesn’t come to any of the meetings.
“He doesn’t answer the phone, even,” Amjad reported. “If this community was a little more monetarily privileged, I guarantee this would not be happening.
“Everybody knows that,” she added. “These people here are asking for your help...What we’re asking for is some empathy when you listen to these stories.”
Amjad reminded them that Minden residents were at the meeting for support and were not present “to be corrected.”
“I belong here. You guys don’t,” she added. “You’re coming into our space, and we’re asking for help, yet we’re feeling animosity from you guys.
“That’s not fair,” she added. “You’re government workers. Government workers work for the people, not vice versa. We want help.”
State health bureau officials and an EPA toxicologist said they are interested in looking at the cancer death data collected by Headwaters Defense and hoped that the group would share it.
Justin Byler, EPA site assessment manager, said EPA agents plan to do a thorough job in Minden.
“I want to thank everyone for sharing your stories,” he said. “They’re really powerful.
“We’re truly doing the best we can to find a good path forward to help your community.”
• • •
EPA will begin a months-long site assessment of Shaffer’s next week to determine if the area will be added to NPL.
EPA NPL Coordinator/Region 3 Lori Baker said the site has been identified for further screening, which will begin next week. Focus will be on residential testing and testing of previously untested areas.
A “hazard ranking score” will be issued, based on assessment, to determine whether Shaffer’s is eligible for placement on NPL.
Pending HSR results, EPA will seek agreement from the state on NPL placement.
“We would contact the governor and see if he would agree that listing the site would be the best path forward,” she described the process.
Once the HRS is completed and the governor agrees, a 60-day public comment would follow, prior to the NPL listing.
Prior to the meeting, EPA toxicologist Dawn Ioven told The Register-Herald that the PCB levels detected in residential soil in 2017 do not pose a health risk to Minden residents.
Ioven said that, among 37 surface soil and 27 sediment samples collected by the EPA removal program agents in December 2017 and 98 samples taken in June or July 2017, the highest PCB concentration in a residential area was 1.3 ppm, which slightly exceeds the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) removal standard of 1 ppm, which EPA follows.
The levels do not warrant removal of PCB contamination in Minden.
“From a risk perspective, that (Minden) number is within a safe range,” Ioven said. “If we did a straight-up risk calculation, it would present a cancer risk of 4 in 1 million risk of getting cancer in a lifetime.”
Ioven explained that the lifetime cancer risk due to PCB at the detected level is calculated on a 26-year exposure to the level for 350 days out of the year.
“It very, very slightly exceeds the TSCA regulation of 1 ppm,” she added. “But 1 ppm and 1.3 ppm is, basically,the same value.”
Ioven noted that past levels of contamination at Minden were higher.
“Back in 1989, 1990, early 90s, there was a PCB problem out here, no doubt about it,” she said. “High levels of PCB were released into the environment.”
She said EPA removal program agents removed or covered the severe contamination.
“Fast forward now, to 2017,” she said. “The results I’ve seen from 2017 that EPA collected in June or July 2017 and December 2017, there were a couple of outliers....Assuming that we sampled in the right places and the samples are representative of what’s actually going on in this area, I don’t have concerns in terms of a potential threat.”
Lora Werner of ATSDR agreed with Ioven’s assessment. She added that her agency has not released an official position on the current investigation at Minden but reported that ATSDR did not find levels of PCB that would’ve presented a threat to human health in the last investigation.
“In the past, there was significant contamination at this site,” Werner said. “But even when ATSDR released our report in 1993, 1994, we didn’t find the off-site levels were a public health concern.
“It was just that, really, excessive contamination that was on the site.”
She added that ATSDR had concerns that trespassers to the site could be exposed to PCB and that consumption of fish from the creek would present PCB exposure risk.
She said that drinking water in Minden is safe.
Regarding the current PCB samples, Werner said, “I wish people were less scared of what these results mean.”
• • •
In all samples taken by EPA from Minden in 2017, Ioven said, only two showed levels much higher than the 1 ppm standard that EPA generally recognizes as a “removal standard.”
Of the summer samples collected, one sediment sample showed PCB of 50 ppm, while the Shaffer site showed PCB levels at 54 ppm.
When an EPA agent attempted to duplicate the 50 ppm sediment sample in December 2017, Ioven noted, she was unable to do so.
“The highest concentration she saw in December in that same area was 1.8 ppm,” said Ioven. “It was in the stream, so it could be that the 50 ppm sample she collected back in July was there in July and maybe there was a huge storm event that caused the sediment to wash downstream.
“There was no doubt it was there in 2017. It wasn’t there later in 2017, so it probably washed downstream a little bit.
“There were no other concentrations even close to that,” she said. “Other than those two anomalous results, the 54 ppm on (Shaffer) site and 50 ppm...there was nothing concerning from a human health perspective for direct contact with the soil.”
She said the 50 ppm would most likely dilute in water and not pose a risk at another location.
Jake Glance, WVDEP communications director, said that one WVDEP scientist believed that the 50 ppm reading was an error.
Glance added that WVDEP officially endorses the Oak Hill sewer upgrade project.
“What we think is the imminent threat to the people who live in this area is the raw sewage and untreated waste water going into Arbuckle Creek form the Arbuckle PSD,” he said. “That is a much more immediate threat to those people.”
WVDEP and EPA officials noted that fecal coliform exposure has not been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
EPA officials said that PCB levels in portions of the sewer pipe line path do not pose a threat to workers or to residents.
• • •
Minden residents Vicky Pizzino, Steve Hayslette, Darrell Thomas, Kimberly Duncan, Susie Worley and Cindy Hayslette were among the speakers.
Percy Fruit, 63, of Minden, said both parents died of cancer and two brothers currently have cancer. Fruit, who is being tested for prostate cancer, grew up and still lives beside of the Shaffer site.
He urged EPA to place a fence at the site to keep children and trespassers from being exposed to PCB on site.
Kimberly Lilly, 42, of Oak Hill, said she lives on a cliff above Minden.
“Shafer Equipment burned these PCB oils for a minimum of 20 years in two separate slate piles,” she said. “This stuff settles in the area where I live.”
She said she has suffered from statge one kidney disease, diabetes and several other health conditions, including infertility and that her father, a Minden sewer plant construction worker, had squamous cell skin cancer while her mother had uterine cancer, end-stage renal failure and a serious respiratory illness.
“Many of my friends, familes and neighbors have fought autoimmune disease, neurological disease,” she added. “It is so unsettling to be ignored by our local, county and state representatives.
“If there is ‘no immediate threat,’...why have we lost 130 some members in our neighborhoods in the space of four years?”