Where ya been, Joe?
This past week, Sen. Joe Manchin finally found religion on PCB contamination in Minden, urging federal officials to see if they wouldn’t do something nice for the people in the hardscrabble, sparsely populated Fayette County community who have been treated like collateral damage going on nearly 40 years — if not longer.
In response to reports of higher cancer rates in Minden, Manchin has asked the director of the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct more research into the link between PCBs and cancer. He has also suggested that EPA Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio visit Minden.
Well, that’s nice. Must be an election year.
Excuse our snarky cynicism toward politicians, but it is well earned. Manchin has been a U.S. senator from West Virginia since 2010, a governor of the state from 2005 to 2010 and, before that, secretary of state from 2001 to 2005.
You might say Joe’s been around — just rarely in Minden. But PCBs have been there pretty reliably, showing up in one Environmental Protection Agency test after another over the years. And, yet, just now Manchin is asking for federal assistance.
Manchin’s Republican opponent in the Senate race this fall, Patrick Morrisey, doesn’t get a pass, either. As our state’s attorney general, he could have ordered an investigation to see where the fault lines fall. But, no, Morrisey didn’t bother to lift a finger. Clearly, not enough votes or wealth in Minden to form a formidable and influential lobbying concern. McKinney Road ain’t no K Street, right, Patrick?
Minden residents — past and present — have said they suffer an extremely high number of cancers and other illnesses. Folks can tell you, house by house, what cancers have paid a visit, who has survived and how many funerals they have attended. Some are family, all are neighbors.
The town was home to Shaffer’s Equipment Co., which built and serviced electric transformers used in the coal mining industry. When the mines around Minden closed, Shaffer’s followed suit. But before that, Shaffer workers disposed of PCBs willy-nilly in the 1970s and 1980s — piling barrels and transformers filled with PCB-laced oils deep into abandoned coal mine shafts, spraying the toxic chemical compound on roads to keep the dust down in summer and burying who knows what who knows where. Every once in awhile, those concealed testimonies of the past reveal themselves. Just recently, construction crews building a sewer line through Minden unearthed and cracked open a leaking underground tank.
The EPA is investigating whether Shaffer’s should be added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites, making Minden residents eligible for relocation services. That, of course, should have been settled long ago. But the EPA has a way of dragging its feet, ordering up another round of testing and hoping the problem goes away. Even then it is likely to make a mess, as it did in the early 1990s when officials repeatedly botched a cleanup. But still, decades later, with tests showing PCB levels exceeding “actionable” levels, no remediation for the town’s residents.
Because of environmental toxicity of PCBs and their classification as persistent organic pollutant, their production was banned by federal law in 1978. The International Agency for Research on Cancer identified PCBs as definite carcinogens in humans. And according to the EPA itself, PCBs cause cancer in animals and are probable human carcinogens.
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 in August, said PCB exposure had caused cancer in a number of townspeople. He had begun a study to prove the link and told The Register-Herald of Beckley that many of the Shaffer’s workers he had located had died of cancer or been treated for it.
Said Manchin last week: “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.”
Amjad’s work began back in the 1980s. Manchin’s, just last week.
Welcome to the fight, Joe.