By June 19, 2017 Read More →

When home turf becomes ground zero for cancer study: Minden residents recall more innocent times when coal was king

By JESSICA FARRISH

The Register-Herald

MINDEN, W.Va. — Two decades before Shaffer’s Equipment became synonymous with PCBs and cancer studies, it was just part of life for 72-year-old Percy Fruit and other neighborhood children in the 1960’s, when coal was still king and Minden was a thriving community.

The town of Minden is being tested again by the EPA for PCB contamination. The town was tested in the 1980s and showed very high levels of PCB contamination.
(Photo by Jenny Harnish)

“We grew up around coal. It was a tipple right down the road there. They had trains that came all the way up here, on the other side of them was woods, and it was just a playground for us.”

Fruit up in a historically black neighborhood in Minden. His manicured lawn and well-maintained home is within a quarter mile of the old Shaffer site, which, Fruit pointed out, is located on two sides of the Arbuckle Creek bed.

“When the EPA came here last time when they put the dirt down and said they were sealing everything they just did one side of that creek,” he said. “They didn’t do the side of the creek. Both sides had contaminated equipment in it.

“I seen it, myself. I seen the oil and stuff that was in the drums.”

When Fruit was a child, the Shaffer site was a playground and a campsite.

“I played in it, which you’ll probably hear that story from a bunch of people, and it’s the truth,” Fruit said Friday. “It was a playground…tag, camping, staying there all night.

“We used to have picnics in there,” he remembered. “Get in there and make a shelter.”

Fruit and his friends would get sodas, cookies and sandwiches at a nearby store and go inside the mine to eat.

A trip to Shaffer’s office usually meant a job and spending money to “go up town” to Oak Hill for a movie. The owner would put neighborhood kids to work on small jobs like cleaning the office or carrying equipment, according to Fruit.

“I worked for Shaffer as a kid…you know, nothing real big, but it was always something he had you doing,” Fruit recalled. “I didn’t call it work, but he would give you a little bit of change here and there.

“When I was a kid, a litlte change was a lot of money, so we did what we could to make money to go to town to see a movie.”

Fruit’s father and mother, who reared their family in Fruit’s current home, both died of cancer. His grandmother, who also lived near the Shaffer site, died of cancer. At least nine neighbors have died of cancer. Fruit’s brother, Eddie Fruit of Fayetteville, was diagnosed with skin cancer, Fruit said.

Lucien Randall, a neighbor who lived at Fruit’s house and was part of the 1980’s citizens’ watchdog group that pushed for EPA responsibility in the 1980s, also died of cancer.

“I’m not a doctor,” Fruit said, declining to say whether the prevalent number of cancer deaths among his family and neighbors could be attributed to PCB exposure.

He said he was unsure of what the current testing for PCB levels on Minden properties will mean for residents.

“They’ve been here three times, and I don’t know what more they can accomplish,” he said. “They know what’s going on here.”

He added that Randall had collected information on the PCB contamination prior to his death, and that he planned to locate Randall’s documents and to turn them over to Dr. Hassan Amjad, who is conducting a study on the link between PCB contamination and cancer among Minden residents.

•••

For Faye Buckland, the tale of Shaffer’s involves a creek.

She once thought it was a gift. When she was a little girl, it flowed right past the backyard of her family home. Summer days in Minden were muggy and hot in the 1980s. Most families didn’t have air-conditioned homes, and, by that time, there were no parks or skating centers or shopping malls in the once-booming coal town.

The Buckland children felt lucky to have a cold stream that rippled just steps from their back door.

“We had fun! I’ve got five sisters and one brother, and we all played in this creek down here,” Buckland said Friday, standing on the porch of her family home, where she now lives with her son, her sister and her sister’s two sons. “When it was really hot, we had a ball.

“That’s the only thing we really had to do, down here.”

As she talked to The Register-Herald, she kept her nephews Aaron, 8, and Dylan Collins, 4, on the porch, along with her two dogs.

Her mom and dad “didn’t like” to hear the news that the stream was possibly contaminated with PCBs stored in transformers at the old Shaffer site, Buckland recalled, but EPA crews had reassured everyone that the site had been cleaned and that there was no threat to Minden residents.

The Buckland children continued to enjoy their creek.

In 2001, the creek didn’t stop for anyone. It raged past the banks and overtook the land and everything on it.

Floodwaters destroyed most of Buckland’s neighbors’ homes, and the area was declared a federal disaster. Once the waters had receded and the creek was flowing in its bed again, the small Buckland house was still standing.

There have been several minor floods since 2001, though none have been as devastating. The floodwaters are oily with what Buckland and other residents say is PCB-contaminants flowing from the old Shaffer mine.

“Every time it floods, it gets us real bad,” said Buckland. “Oil always comes down through here all the time.

“You can actually see it, come down by my window.”

Around two years ago, Buckland’s doctor diagnosed her with uterine cancer. She said she’s currently in remission.

Buckland’s nephews Aaron and Dylan Collins, 8 and 4, ask to play in the creek that flows past their backyard.

They’re not allowed to play in the yard, because of the threat of PCB carried in the creek, Buckland said, and a governmental buy-out of Minden properties doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

“My sister really wants out of here,” she reported. “It would be very hard. We’ve been here since we were Dylan’s age.

“It will be hard, but my nephews can’t get out and play in the yard.”

•••

Megan Naylor, 32, grew up across from Arbuckle PSD in Minden.

Thirteen years ago, she moved to a home located about 500 feet from the old Shaffer mine site.

“When it rained, you could see all the oily-looking stuff on top of the water, sludge, everything,” Naylor reported Friday. “You can go down there, right now, and see the oil floating.”

Two years ago, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she reported.

“They are going to go back in and see if they can freeze the cells and go from there,” she said. “They found out I had the cells when I had (the youngest daughter).”

When Naylor began hearing from neighbors that PCBs was still a risk in the community, she decided to leave.

She moved from Minden six months ago.

Her father, Richard Naylor, grew up in Minden, she said. Two months ago, doctors diagnosed him with stage-four lung, liver and bone marrow cancer.

“It’s really scary, because I’ve got four daughters,” she said. “Now, I’ve got to worry when they get older, are they doing to have any effects from it?”

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