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EPA begins sampling, but Minden residents remain distrustful


The Register-Herald

MINDEN, W.Va. — Annetta Coffman once listed, to her twin sister, their sick neighbors and the ones who have died.

“I can drive through Minden and pinpoint the houses,” she said Monday. “Some are two or three in a row of people who have had cancer or died from cancer.

Contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency take samples of water at the site of the abandoned Shaffer Mine in Minden Monday. They will be testing the water and soil for PCB around Minden all week.
(Photo by Jenny Harnish)

“There’s so many people,” she said.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials are in Minden conducting a month-long sampling of county and private properties to test for the chemical PCB, which the EPA lists as a “possible” carcinogen.

Many residents don’t trust the EPA’s investment in their community. EPA officials visited in the 1980s and in 1992. They sealed off the Shaffer Mine site and told residents that it was unlikely the soil was contaminated and that their health was not at risk.

Coffman has a partial list of the cancer deaths in her hometown. Within a quarter mile of the old Shaffer Mine – a dumping ground for the now-banned chemical PCB – there were nine households.

Raleigh County retired school teacher Mildred Dancy grew up in Minden, where her father worked for Shaffer Equipment. He later died of bladder cancer.

Kimberly Duncan, 47, was 19 when she moved to Minden with her husband and her 3-year-old son. She spent her childbearing years in the community, living near the Shaffer site.

She was 23 when she began getting inflamed bumps on her skin. Some family members developed tumors on their skin. Doctors haven’t explained it, she said.

Even though in the 1980s the EPA and told residents PCBs in the old Shaffer site was not a health threat, they returned in 1992 to launch a clean-up effort and seal off the site.

“I’ve heard of PCBs since I lived here, but I honestly thought they cleaned it up, and it was gone,” she said. “But then, people’s dying left and right.

“Why is everybody dying down here so young, and so many people sick? I think PCB has really affected people’s health.”

Duncan’s family in Minden started to die. Two cousins passed away at age 38 and 39 from multiple melanoma. Her uncle died of lung cancer. Aunts and cousins developed bone and lung cancers, she said. A neighbor died of bone cancer.

Duncan survived cervical cancer.

Three of her dogs died of cancer in the past 10 years.

Coffman has her own story.

Coffman’s mother, whose home was 1,000 feet from the Shaffer site, died in 2007 of uterine and cervical and breast cancer. Her father is now suffering with severe lung disease.

Three years ago, Coffman’s then-16-year-old son stopped growing. He was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor. Then, he was diagnosed with kidney and heart problems. There are places on his skin that Coffman fears may be cancer. He has high blood pressure, and a doctor at Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Charleston recently compared the lower bone density in his lower back to that of an 80-year-old female.

She said that a doctor in Charleston has told her that her son’s problems are ones that are traceable to PCB exposure, although legally proving it would be difficult.

“It’s weird that in one community, you would have that many people with cancer,” Coffman.

Coffman and Duncan are participating in a study by Dr. Hassan Amjad, a local physician who is studying the link between PCB contamination in Minden and the deaths and cancer diagnoses of what Amjad reports as dozens of Minden residents.

When an EPA agent asked Coffman for permission to test her soil Monday, she granted it. Still, neither Coffman nor Duncan trusts the process.

“I have a lot of family down here – had a lot of family down here, and they’ve passed away,” Duncan said. “For the EPA to be down here, I don’t trust them at all.”

• • •

PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyls,  were once commonly used to insulate electrical equipment until research linked PCB exposure to cancer and birth defects. In 1977, the EPA banned their use except in totally enclosed systems.

According to EPA documents, Shaffer used abandoned mines to dump electrical equipment and contaminated oil. The EPA extracted and removed contaminated soil three times between 1984 and 1991, and in 1992 determined it was best to tear down the building and construct a cap over the site.

Minden residents believe a 2001 flood, where 21 inches of rain accumulated quickly and residents were forced to evacuate by boat, caused PCB contaminants to migrate into the creek and river, according to Headwaters Defense, a community action group.

Local residents reported that of 20 sites currently being sampled by EPA agents, only one is being taken from the historically African-American neighborhood in Minden that is closest to the site.

Dr. Amjad has publicly called out EPA officials for failing to protect Minden residents.

“The EPA is afraid to find their own mistakes” Amjad said in a press release from Headwaters Defense. “Several of my patients that have died of cancer are black and live in the black neighborhood.

“The fact that they are not sampling there indicates mal-intent on behalf of the EPA.”

Residents reported that EPA officials are not testing all sites that are most likely to show PCB contamination.

Minden community leader Suzy Jenkins said, “We should not have to beg for the investigation we need like this. Minden residents pay taxes, too.

“We are thinking one-third of Minden residents have died of cancer,” she added. “That number is rising every day.

The Register-Herald sent a list of questions to EPA officials and called the EPA Philadelphia office on Monday but did receive a reply by Monday night.

• • •

Some Rock Lick residents want EPA officials to test property in Rock Lick, located a few miles from the Shaffer site.

Stephanie Comer Toney lives in North Carolina now, but she grew up in Rock Lick, a community located just a few miles upstream from Minden.

She was in elementary school, she said Monday, when she and her family drove from Rock Lick to Beckley in the 1980s. EPA agents had told her parents that PCBs were in Arbuckle Creek at the old mine site in Minden. She remembers getting a blood test with her dad, Gary Comer, who was also young and healthy, then.

“My dad passed away at age 50 with lung cancer,” Toney recalled Monday. “He also had lymphoma and colon cancer, as well.”

Toney has suffered from a string of reproductive health problems, she reported.

“Testing should be done,” she said. “I feel like something needs to be done, but it’s truly sad that it’s taken this long.”

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