MINDEN — While Environmental Protection Agency officials announced on Monday in a surprise visit to Minden that part of the contaminated Fayette County community has been designated as a National Priorities List (NPL) Superfund site, one town leader is asking that the federal agency test for additional contaminants and deeper into Minden soil than it has in the past.
Susan Worley-Jenkins also asked that EPA administrators ensure appropriate federal funds be applied to a remedial investigation that EPA launched in Minden on Monday as part of the community’s NPL inclusion.
Local activists report that a third of Minden residents have died from or have been diagnosed with cancer in recent years, although state health workers say the official numbers are much lower.
Soil samples collected by EPA in June 2017 showed that 4 of 98 samples taken in Minden showed PCB contamination above the level of one part per million (1 ppm) that requires EPA action, agency officials said Thursday.
Of those samples, two were soil samples taken at private residences and measured 1.2 ppm and 1.3 ppm, while two sediment samples taken from Arbuckle Creek showed 50 ppm and 6.2 ppm. EPA agents conducted 41 soil samples and 25 sediment samples in Minden, along with water samples of Arbuckle Creek, agents reported Thursday.
NPL designation allows for deeper soil sample testing than has ever been conducted in Minden, according to EPA officials.
Worley-Jenkins said Monday that she believes that deeper testing of soil samples will uncover higher levels of PCB and other contaminants, particularly those that were used by the railroad workers between Thurmond and Minden in the 20th century.
“There is a lot of other stuff they used with the railroad, up at Shaffer’s site,” said Worley-Jenkins. “PCBs was not the only thing that Shaffer’s was dealing with, there.”
Under NPL guidelines, EPA agents will be testing soil to “bedrock” levels in a remediation investigation this summer.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who appeared at the Monday morning meeting, said workers will rely on Minden residents to direct them where to test.
The City of Oak Hill has contracted Thrasher Engineering, owned by Republican gubernatorial candidate Woody Thrasher, to lay a sewer line through Minden — a project that most Minden residents protested.
On May 10, 2018, contractors unearthed a 150-gallon tank containing a variety of chemicals, including elevated levels of acetone, benzene and toulene and low levels of naphtalene, a pesticide.
A 2017 report by EPA showed that soil testing at a former landfill site at nearby Concho, near ACE resort, showed low concentrations of PCB, pesticides and dioxin, along with lower levels of lead in the soil.
According to Worley-Jenkins, who says PCB tanks are buried in other places in Fayette County, Shaffer once accepted shipments of an insecticide from other states and improperly disposed of it, much in the same way Shaffer’s workers improperly disposed of PCB oil.
“The cotton industry used this chemical and insecticide to kill all the bugs off the cotton,” she said. “It was causing cancer deaths. When they found out, they stopped using it.
“They brought it to Concho, gallons and gallons and gallons from down South, from everywhere,” she reported. “They brought it, and they dumped it.
“They paid the City of Oak Hill. It shows up on EPA reports, plus lead.”
She said she has shared her concerns with EPA representatives.
Wheeler said that NPL testing will allow EPA workers to look for more contaminants than PCB.
“We will be looking, primarily, for PCB contamination, but we will be looking for contamination of any chemicals that might be in the area,” he said. “We know there have been PCBs here, small levels of PCB.
“We want to make sure that they are smaller and don’t need remediated,” he added. “We’ll look for that, but as we’re checking, we’ll be looking for all chemicals.”
From 1984 to 1991, the EPA had spent at least $5 million in Minden, including $1 million in a failed cleanup effort led by EPA coordinator Robert Carron, who had lied about his credentials and education, according to federal court documents.
He also said he did not have a “ballpark” expenditure amount to report for the past two to three years.
The EPA’s most recent involvement in Minden started in 2017, after a late local physician, Dr. Hassan Amjad, launched a cancer study of past and current Minden residents and joined with environmental rights group Headwaters Defense and Worley-Jenkins and Darrell “Butter” Thomas and other residents to demand that EPA return for testing.
The interest was sparked when the City of Oak Hill announced plans to annex Minden and build the sewer line, a project the late Amjad opposed.
Amjad was a staunch critic of EPA and state and federal health officials. He believed the agencies had failed Minden residents, leading to a high cancer death rate in the tiny town.
Wheeler suggested Monday that money will be no object in EPA testing in 2019.
“We’re going to test, regardless of how much it costs,” Wheeler promised in a press conference following the meeting. “Cost is not a factor in the testing we’re going to be doing.”
The NPL designation will allow a higher level of testing and more federal funds to be spent in Minden, Wheeler and an EPA agent reported.
Wheeler said that he did not want to make any overly optimistic statements about the possibility of relocation for Minden residents, who number around 250, according to reports from locals.
“Relocation is rare at a Superfund site, unless there’s an immediate health concern,” Wheeler said, “or if somebody has to be out of their house for over a year, because of remediation efforts.
“What we want to focus on is the public health aspect of the people who live here to make sure their homes are safe, and the neighborhood’s safe.”
Many Minden residents have asked the federal government to relocate them, under the NPL program. Reports of PCB have driven their property prices down, and they say they live in constant fear of illness due to contamination, leading to mental strain.
Dr. Ayne Amjad, a physician and daughter of Dr. Hassan Amjad, has conducted health screenings of Minden residents to continue her father’s work after his August 2017 death.
She suggested Monday that relocation is still the highest goal for Minden residents.
“We are thrilled with this step forward (NPL designation) and look forward to finding ways to help Minden move forward and continue to find a way to relocate the people of Minden,” Amjad said.
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who was in Minden on Monday with Wheeler, said that remediation will play a major role in the NPL investigation.
“Another part of this investigation is to make sure anything that had been done previously, that there had been any disruption of since that first remediation has occurred, that will be part of the EPA’s responsibility to redo any kind of disrupted remediation,” Capito said.
Worley-Jenkins and Headwaters Defense founder Brandon Richardson reported they had never had dealings with Capito or her staff prior to Monday.
Capito, who served as a congresswoman from 2001 until her election to the U.S. Senate in 2015, said Monday she had been involved with the PCB project in Minden since being elected to the Senate.
She said she has sent a member of her staff to past EPA meetings at Minden and that in August, she had sent a memo to Wheeler saying that Minden “has got to be a higher priority.”
Wheeler said Capito had spoken to him about the issues in Minden before he was appointed by President Donald Trump to his position in April.
“At my very first meeting with the senator, we talked about this,” Wheeler said.
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Wheeler said Monday the NPL announcement meeting was arranged early Monday morning, as soon as he knew he would be able to make it to Minden.
Minden is one of seven sites nationwide that were added to NPL on Monday, he said.
Gov. Jim Justice, Capito and Congresswoman Carol Miller, R-W.Va., appeared with Wheeler for the announcement.
Former Shaffer employee and Minden resident Frank Ward told the group on Monday morning that Shaffer’s workers had spread PCB around Minden, sprayed the roads with it, and dumped the PCB oil in various places.
Ward’s own mother, a Minden resident who had washed his PCB-soaked clothing, later died of cancer. His aunt, also from Minden, died of cancer, too, he said.
“I helped dump this stuff out,” Ward said. “We didn’t know what it was.”
Ward said that transformers with PCB are scattered in mine shafts throughout the area.
Capito apologized, adding that she knows her apology “sounds hollow, because it is hollow.”
“I can’t excuse what’s happened in the past,” Wheeler said, adding that NPL designation will allow a thorough investigation.
Justice, who had halted the Oak Hill sewer line project in 2017 pending final EPA soil samples and who has been a proponent of Minden gaining NPL designation, urged Ward to trust EPA officials in 2019.
“All the people you knew in the past and all the carnage that was going on here, they couldn’t get it done, could they?” the governor stated. “They didn’t get anything done and more and more people died and more and more carnage and more and more people living in fear forever.
“I will promise you this, this man (Wheeler) will do an incredibly thorough job,” said Justice. “He’ll do everything he can.”
EPA hosted a community meeting with Minden residents Monday and planned a second one for Wednesday.