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After years of pleading, West Virginia town nears Superfund priority status

EPA proposes to add old industrial site and contaminated creek to national priorities list.

Highly toxic PCBs have contaminated streams, drinking water, and soil in the town of Minden, West Virginia. CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images.
Highly toxic PCBs have contaminated streams, drinking water, and soil in the town of Minden, West Virginia. CREDIT: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images.

After years of pleading with regulators for assistance, residents of the town of Minden, West Virginia were finally able to claim victory on Tuesday when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed adding the community to its priorities list for cleanup of cancer-causing industrial chemicals.

The EPA’s announcement, though, was not a complete win for the town. The proposal only adds an industrial site and a contaminated portion of a creek that runs through the town to the Superfund program’s National Priorities List (NPL). Minden residents had wanted the EPA to list the entire town as a NPL site.

If the EPA officially adds the industrial site and contaminated creek to its NPL, Minden will be eligible to receive long-term federal funding for permanent cleanup of these areas. Community groups in Minden will also be eligible to receive a technical assistance grant, totaling up to $50,000 initially, to pay for technical advisers to explain technical reports and EPA’s cleanup proposals and decisions for the industrial site and creek.

And should the listing eventually expand to include the entire community, residents will be eligible to receive relocation funds to move away from the toxic town. Right now, people who own homes in Minden cannot afford to move because no one would want to purchase a house in a chemically contaminated town.

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“This is really some of the best news that a small town like Minden can get at this point,” said Brandon Richardson, the founder of Headwaters Defense, an environmental justice group based in Fayette County, West Virginia. Together with residents of Minden, Richardson has been fighting for years to get Minden added to the EPA’s Superfund priorities list.

Expanding the listing to include all of the contaminated areas of Minden could take a long time, warned Richardson, who has many family members who have lived in Minden. “That is the downfall. From the beginning, the community told EPA and told our state regulators, as well as our governor, that the National Priorities List designation needs to go for the whole stretch of land that is Minden,” he told ThinkProgress.

The Superfund program’s NPL includes the nation’s most serious uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites. The list serves as the basis for prioritizing EPA Superfund cleanup funding and enforcement actions. Only sites on the NPL are eligible to receive federal funding for long-term, permanent cleanup.

The designated area of Minden consists of sediment in Arbuckle Creek that is contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have spread to residential properties in Minden due to frequent flooding in the area, the EPA said Tuesday in a news release. Elevated levels of PCBs have been found up to a mile downstream. Wetlands along the creek and endangered species’ habitats are also contaminated.

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The EPA received a letter of support from West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) for placing the sites in Minden on the priorities list. “Ongoing study will determine the best way to move forward and ensure that the threat to public health and the environment is finally eliminated,” Justice said in a statement issued by the EPA.

The agency will accept public comments on the proposed listing for 60 days following publication of the proposal in the Federal Register on Thursday. At some point during the 60-day period, the EPA will conduct a public meeting. The agency said it hasn’t set a date yet. After the comment period, the EPA will then make a final decision on whether to make a final designation for Minden.

Last April, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt dispatched Nick Falvo, a top assistant to then-Superfund program head Albert Kelly, to Minden to hear from residents about why they believe the town should be placed on the Superfund program’s NPL.

Minden was among six sites that the EPA on Tuesday proposed adding to its Superfund priorities list, which consists of the country’s most toxic sites. The other sites being considered for addition to the NPL are Magna Metals in Cortlandt Manor, New York; Cliff Drive Groundwater Contamination in Logansport, Indiana; McLouth Steel Corp in Trenton, Michigan; Sporlan Valve Plant #1 in Washington, Missouri; and Copper Bluff Mine in Hoopa, California.

From the early 1970s until 1984, the Shaffer Equipment Co. in Minden built electrical equipment for the state’s coal industry, including transformers and capacitors that used oil containing PCBs. The chemicals, which can linger for years in air, water, and soil have been banned since 1979, and the EPA classifies them as a “probable human carcinogen.”

In the mid-1980s, officials discovered several hundred discarded transformers and capacitors in Minden. Investigators also found that Shaffer Equipment had buried or dumped PCB-laced oil in drums and other containers in the town, as well as in abandoned mines.

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Minden was a thriving coal mining community during the first half of the 20th century. The town’s mines, located along the New River in Fayette County, were some of the most productive in the region.

The town, which was annexed by the neighboring town of Oak Hill in 2016, 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 that were stored at an old equipment site starting in the 1960s and later dumped in an abandoned mine are now making them sick and killing them.

Last Sunday, a flash flood hit the town, sending contaminated water from the old mines flowing into residents’ yards, Richardson said. With heavy rains from Hurricane Florence expected to reach into West Virginia, residents are concerned the rains could cause additional toxic water to contaminate their homes.

Susie Worley-Jenkins, a long-time resident of Minden, was disappointed the EPA did not propose adding the entire town to the NPL.

“Any victory is good. But it was not what we wanted. It is not what we expected,” Worley-Jenkins told ThinkProgress.

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

Designating the entire town as a NPL site “would have allowed us to relocate,” she said. According to Worley-Jenkins, who has been diagnosed with cancer four times,  eight former coal mines in the town are full of PCBs and will continue to contaminate the town, especially when flooding occurs after heavy rains.

Minden’s population continues to decline as people move out or die. Currently, 250 people live in the community. Since 2014, 160 people have been diagnosed or have died of cancer in the town. Eighty-six of the cancer diagnoses and deaths have occurred in the past year, according to a registry maintained by local residents.

Worley-Jenkins does not plan to give up on Minden, especially with so many of her neighbors fighting cancer and other illnesses attributed to the toxic contamination.

“We’re going to keep pushing and try to get the EPA to expand the NPL site,” she said. “I hope we don’t lose the last 250 people we’ve got. We need to get something done before someone else dies.”