Nearly 40 years after PCBs showed up in soil samples taken from the Shaffer’s Equipment Co. site in Minden, decades after dozens of local residents had contracted one form of cancer or another while others were dealing with different health complications, and about 25 years after a botched EPA cleanup of the site, Minden residents finally got something they wanted. And, yes, it was a long time coming.
On Tuesday, the EPA said that it was proposing to put the Shaffer Equipment and Arbuckle Creek area site on the National Priorities List of Superfund sites. If that happens, federal funds will become available for cleanup or relocation, which most Minden residents have been advocating.
Any celebration at this point would be premature. Minden citizens know all too well the glacial pace of the EPA – even though a remedy is needed now. But, at last, this story has turned in the right direction – with much credit to the persistence of local activists, and the late Dr. Hassan Amjad of Beckley and his daughter, Dr. Ayne Amjad.
The people in this economically forgotten and sparsely populated Fayette County community have been treated like collateral damage by state and federal officials going on nearly 40 years. Had they been fabulously wealthy and politically connected, their concerns would not have lingered.
But that is not this population. These are the downtrodden of society, invisible people who are without a megaphone and the means to be heard.
While politicians have been jumping on the Minden bandwagon of late – it is an election year, after all – PCBs, a known carcinogen, have been showing up in one EPA test after another since 1982. Minden residents can tell you, by name and address, what neighbors have had cancer pay a deadly visit.
The town was home to Shaffer’s, which built and serviced electric transformers used in the coal mining industry. When the mines around Minden closed in the 1970s and 1980s, Shaffer’s saw the handwriting on the wall and closed up shop. In the normal course of business, Shaffer workers disposed of barrels and transformers filled with their PCB-laced coolants by most any way they could – stacking transformer and barrels filled with the toxic sludge deep into abandoned coal mine shafts, spraying the oily compound on roads to keep the dust down in summer, and burying who knows what who knows where.
Meanwhile, unassuming townspeople went about their lives as their kids played in the cool waters of Arbuckle Creek on hot summer days, blissfully ignorant of the consequences.
Because of environmental toxicity of PCBs and their classification as persistent organic pollutant, their production was banned by federal law in 1978. It was nasty stuff, sharing a chemical similarity and toxicity with dioxins. The International Agency for Research on Cancer identified PCBs as carcinogens in humans. According to the EPA itself, PCBs cause cancer in animals and are probable human carcinogens.
Now, the EPA is recommending that Shaffer’s be added to the priority list of Superfund sites. That, of course, should have been done long ago. But the EPA has a history – especially in this case – of dragging its feet while ignoring the medical research of a local doctor and statistics that showed the local cancer rate four times that of the rest of Fayette County.
The late physician Dr. Hassan Amjad was a fierce critic of the EPA 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 a year ago August, said PCB exposure had caused cancer in a number of townspeople. His daughter, Ayne – a sincere and impassioned advocate – has picked up where her father left off. This past summer she told EPA officials to “forget the dirt and forget the numbers” in Minden – and to focus on the people.
We hope state and federal officials recognize the errors of its past. None of what has transpired can be made whole again. No amount of remediation will bring back the dead or heal the sick.
But our government can start a new chapter in this story and push for both relocation of citizens and a thorough environmental cleanup. Both are necessary and long overdue.