EPA official blew off scheduled meeting with toxic Appalachian coal town

Albert Kelly stays behind in Washington to deal with fallout from Scott Pruitt controversies.

PCB-contaminated water flows from creeks in Minden, West Virginia and the surrounding region into a section of the New River area extremely popular with rafters. CREDIT: Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)
PCB-contaminated water flows from creeks in Minden, West Virginia and the surrounding region into a section of the New River area extremely popular with rafters. CREDIT: Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

On Thursday night, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s point person for the EPA’s Superfund program failed to show up at a scheduled meeting with residents of a West Virginia town contaminated by toxic chemicals.

Albert Kelly, senior adviser for the agency’s Superfund program, stayed behind in Washington to help Pruitt deal with the fallout from the barrage of controversies facing the administrator. Instead, the EPA sent Kelly’s top assistant, Nick Falvo, to Minden, West Virginia, to hear from residents about why they believe the town should be placed on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List (NPL).

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The meeting, held in the sanctuary of the New Beginning Apostolic Church in Minden, attracted approximately 60 community members. Falvo told residents that Kelly would come back to visit Minden himself “once the storm in D.C. clears up,” referring to scandal-plagued Pruitt. This will hopefully be sometime next month, he said.

Minden is a town struggling with toxic contamination from PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls, a highly toxic industrial chemical — that were stored at an old equipment site starting in the 1960s and later dumped in an abandoned mine. Minden is now a toxic wasteland where residents are afraid to drink the water and let their children play in their yards. Residents fear the PCBs are making them sick and killing them.

Since the equipment manufacturer shut down in 1984, community members have been pleading with the federal government to clean up Minden, a former coal mining town located near the scenic New River in Fayette County, West Virginia, and relocate its residents. At one time, seven coal mines were operating in the town.

Falvo listened to Minden residents’ comments and concerns about how the EPA has handled the toxic contamination of the town but did not offer any promises about how the agency’s ongoing soil and water testing would turn out.

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“It was a disappointment that Mr. Kelly couldn’t make it,” Kimberly Lilly, a member of the Minden Community Action Team, told ThinkProgress. But she was pleased that at least “somebody who has Albert Kelly’s ear” showed up to listen and learn about the plight of Minden’s residents.

The Minden Community Action Team was formed with the goal of getting help for the town’s residents as quickly as possible.

“The community is finally feeling like people are really trying to listen now,” she said, noting that Falvo is the highest-ranking EPA official ever to visit Minden in response to the contamination. “Our locals may not care two cents about what’s going on, but there are people out there who do,” said Lilly.

In the past, when regional EPA and state environmental officials came to town, residents were skeptical that action would be taken. “It felt better to attend a meeting with an official who has the power to do something,” she said. “Our local and state politicians are very much not present. And when they do show up, they’re still not really listening.”

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Residents are concerned that their exposure to PCBs over the years is leading to a high cancer rate in the area. In the last four years alone, Minden has seen 154 cases of cancer, with 68 of them reported since the EPA returned to the town in 2017 to conduct more testing, according to tracking by Headwaters Defense. The town has a population of about 250, down from a peak of about 1,200 during its heyday as a mining town from the 1920s through the 1960s.

The EPA conducted a new round of soil and sediment sampling around Minden during the week of March 19, the agency told ThinkProgress. Those tests will be used along with previous sampling and other data to help develop a hazard ranking system (HRS) package.

If the HRS package results in a score above 28.5, the EPA will propose the site for inclusion on the National Priorities List. The next opportunity to propose a site is scheduled for September, the agency said.

Some residents believe local and state officials don’t want Minden added to the Superfund priority list because it could hurt business at local tourist attractions such as whitewater rafting companies that operate on the New River.

A sign next to Arbuckle Creek, which runs through the town of Minden, West Virginia, lists some of the people who are believed to have died from toxic contamination. CREDIT: MINDEN COMMUNITY ACTION TEAM, HEADWATERS DEFENSE
A sign next to Arbuckle Creek, which runs through the town of Minden, West Virginia, lists some of the people who are believed to have died from toxic contamination. CREDIT: MINDEN COMMUNITY ACTION TEAM, HEADWATERS DEFENSE

Former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) once ordered signs removed from the area that warned people about the contaminated water flowing into the New River, said Susie Worley-Jenkins, a long-time Minden resident who has been diagnosed with cancer four times. “He told them to take the signs down because it was hurting tourism,” Worley-Jenkins told ThinkProgress.

Minden was a thriving coal mining community during the first half of the 20th century. The town’s mines eventually closed down in the 1960s. From 1970 to 1984, Shaffer Equipment built electrical equipment for the coal industry. Oil that contained PCBs — banned by the EPA in 1979 — was used in the transformers and other equipment that were supplied to the coal mining industry.

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During its initial investigations in the 1980s, the EPA found that Shaffer Equipment had dumped electrical equipment laden with PCB oil in an abandoned mine site in the center of Minden. The agency found that even when the company followed protocol by storing the oil in containers, some of the fluid leaked onto the ground.

“Very few of the workers at Shaffer Equipment are still alive. Most have died of cancers,” said Worley-Jenkins, who is a member of the Minden Community Action Team.

large body of evidence suggests that exposure to PCBs is associated with an increased risk of many cancers, including cancers of the digestive tract, liver, and skin. PCB exposure is also associated with reproductive deficiencies, such as reduced growth rates and certain neurological effects which may or may not persist beyond infancy. The immune system can also be affected, leading to increased infection rates.

Susie Worley-Jenkins, a resident of Minden, West Virginia and member of the Minden Community Action Team, looks down at Arbuckle Creek, which runs through the town. CREDIT: MINDEN COMMUNITY ACTION TEAM, HEADWATERS DEFENSE
Susie Worley-Jenkins, a resident of Minden, West Virginia and member of the Minden Community Action Team, looks down at Arbuckle Creek, which runs through the town. CREDIT: MINDEN COMMUNITY ACTION TEAM, HEADWATERS DEFENSE

A delegation of activists from the Minden Community Action Team — Worley-Jenkins, Lilly, and Headwaters Defense founder Brandon Richardson — met with Kelly and Pruitt in late January in Washington at EPA headquarters. At the meeting, the community members invited Kelly to visit Minden so he could see the problems first-hand.

“Kelly was in fact genuine in his interests about Minden’s situation,” Headwaters Defense, an environmental justice group based in Fayette County, said in a statement Thursday.

The same delegation is scheduled to meet with Kelly again at EPA headquarters on April 19.

Headwaters Defense said the community’s relationship with the regional EPA office that oversees West Virginia “has been less than ideal” over the past three decades. “Many are hopeful that Kelly will mend this divide,” the group said.

Kelly had never worked in the environmental field or developed environmental policy prior to being named last April as an adviser to Pruitt and head of the EPA’s Superfund Task Force. His home city of Bristow, Oklahoma, though, has a Superfund site and several other contaminated sites. Kelly was banned from the banking industry for life for violating federal banking laws.

Kelly holds as much as $75,000 in financial stakes in several fossil fuel companies, including a company responsible for contaminating a bayou in southwestern Louisiana and a stretch of river in Oregon.

Falvo, his assistant, also had no previous experience working with Superfund sites. He worked for Trump’s campaign in North Carolina and served as deputy assistant director of transportation for Trump’s inauguration. He previously worked as a legislative and regulatory analyst for the American Insurance Association.