Community where cancer rates are FOUR TIMES the national average and residents point to chemical dumps as the cause as they attend ‘one funeral after another’
When Susie Worley-Jenkins survived cervical cancer after being diagnosed at 22 years old, she hoped that she was done with the disease. It was 1979, and she had no idea what was coming.
Thirty-five years later, she was diagnosed with cancer in her left breast. Then her right breast. Then she got cancerous moles on her hand and nose.
In her 62 years, Ms Worley-Jenkins says she has had four cancer diagnoses – and she’s not the only one. Her husband, Randy Jenkins, has been diagnosed with skin cancer four times and was treated in 1999 for leukemia. Months later her childhood friend died of a brain tumor.
‘I just went to one funeral, then another funeral, then another funeral, and I said, “This ain’t right. Not that many people should die that quickly”,’ she tells DailyMail.com.
Something had to be wrong in her small town of Minden, West Virginia, she reasoned. She knew of many other families suffering with cancers, birth defects and chemical burns – and began going door-to-door in Minden four years ago making an informal survey. She was stunned to find that nearly every household she visited was privately dealing with some type of ‘horrendous’ health condition.
‘My friends were dying of cancer. Their grandkids have brain tumors, and I’m not talking about people old like me or older than me and stuff – I’m talking about 15-year-old kids,’ Ms Worley-Jenkins says.
The high sickness levels, she believes, can all be attributed to contaminated water. The area has a cancer rate that’s nearly four times higher than the national average, and a local doctor spent decades trying to link that to pollution from industrial byproducts.
An investigation by DailyMail.com found an environmental disaster that began more than a century ago with the coal-mining industry and went on to include dumped toxic chemicals – leading the Environmental Protection Agency to fund clean-up with Superfund money, designated for hazardous waste sites. Now residents fear nearby fracking by oil and gas companies could be further contaminating their water and region, and Fayette County officials have already banned natural gas or oil waste within county borders amidst concerns about possible pollution.
Recent academic studies have recorded worrying trends associated with the loosely-regulated fracking industry, identifying a higher number of hospitalizations among people living near fracking sites. And while the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has denied a cancer cluster, at least one state statistician has expressed concern at the Minden levels in an email seen by DailyMail.com.
DailyMail.com spoke with officials and examined numerous documents, including pertinent reports, studies and correspondence – and the findings support Ms Worley-Jenkins’ initial, worrisome hunch.
There is something wrong with Minden.
Sleepy riverside town that became a dumping ground for industrial waste: Oblivious residents were exposed to elevated levels of toxic chemicals for decades
Minden is a sleepy riverside town of 250 residents, mostly poor and white – which was once a thriving coal town in Fayette County, southern West Virginia. But during the 1970s, now-defunct company Shaffer Equipment, which rebuilt electrical substations for the local coal mining industry, dumped industrial products or chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the area.
The EPA found that Shaffer – which had employed Randy Jenkins – had dumped electrical equipment laden with PCB oil on the coal company’s now-abandoned mine site in the center of Minden. The predominant practice was to store the fluid in containers, but the agency found that even when the company followed protocol, some of the fluid leaked onto the ground.
Since Shaffer abandoned Minden in the early 1980s, the town has received funding from the EPA’s Superfund program, designed to fund the clean-up of the country’s most complex or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
Although the area received funding from this program, it was never actually deemed a Superfund site on the EPA’s National Priorities List of most contaminated sites – a common occurrence for places that the agency believes only require ‘immediate, short-term responses’, according to an EPA spokesman.
Ms Worley-Jenkins says she’s seen 80 neighbors, even their pets, die in the past two decades – all victims of cancer. She’s created a list of 237 people who she says have been diagnosed or died with the disease during this time – and the number of those affected continues to grow.
After she was diagnosed with cancer in both of her breasts, Ms Worley-Jenkins’s one-story home became a staging ground for an environmental justice fight. She has emerged as the leader of a group of residents demanding residential buyouts from the state. But the effort to identify a root cause of the sickness rates extends far beyond Ms Worley-Jenkins.
Dr Hassan Amjad, an oncologist and hematologist in nearby Beckley, considered it his life’s work to document the high cancer rates in the Minden area. He was conducting a study on the possible link between PCB contamination and cancer patients when he died suddenly in August, weeks after speaking with DailyMail.com for this investigation and sharing his research and information.
The toxic history of Minden in coal-mining country
Minden, West Virginia was once a thriving coal town in Fayette County. Today, deaths are nearly four times higher than the national average, which residents believe is owed in part to the dumping of PCBs by Shaffer Equipment, a now-defunct company that for decades churned toxic chemicals into the atmosphere while rebuilding electrical substations for the local coal mining industry.
Shaffer had dumped electrical equipment laden with PCB oil on the coal company’s now-abandoned mine site in the center of Minden, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The predominant practice was to store the fluid in containers, but the agency found that even when the company followed protocol, some of the fluid leaked onto the ground at the less than one-acre site. PCBs were also reportedly burned as starter fuel in the company’s building that served as both a warehouse and office.
PCBs were commonly used to insulate electrical equipment until 1979, when the EPA banned them as a ‘possible’ human carcinogen.
Since Shaffer abandoned Minden in 1984, the town has received funding from the EPA’s Superfund program, designed to fund the clean-up of the country’s most complex or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
The EPA’s history in Minden began shortly after an unidentified Shaffer employee reportedly notified state officials that PCB oil was stored at the company’s site, built on leased land owned by Berwind Land Corporation.
A West Virginia Division of Natural Resources agent notified the federal agency, which sent investigators to the town sometime in November 1984. Investigators found oil from capacitors and transformers stored in containers on the Shaffer site.
When Anna Shaffer, daughter of the company’s founder and owner of the namesake site, said she didn’t have the money to clean the area and Berwind officials denied responsibility, the EPA sent a team led by Robert Caron. He was later sentenced to three months of home detention for lying to the agency about his education and expertise.
In March 1990, EPA testing validated residents’ concerns: soil samples showed PCB contamination at Shaffer and agents found more contaminated barrels buried at the site. This prompted the agency to conduct a second clean-up effort the following year, with millions of dollars was wasted on mismanaging the site. Despite the EPA’s efforts to extract and remove contaminated soil on the Shaffer site, they ultimately determined that it was best to destroy and construct a cap over the site, which the agency did in 1992.
According to his research, Minden’s cancer rates far exceeded those nationally; while the cancer mortality rate is currently 171 per 100,000 in the US, he found that Minden’s was as high as 692 – and, in previous years, had climbed as high as 2,092 per 100,000.
The West Virginia Health Statistics Center reported that from 1979-2016, the cancer death rate was 642.1 per 100,000 – more than twice that of Fayette County’s 279.1, already significantly higher than the national average. Dr Amjad believed the real toll is likely even higher because of flawed reporting or sufferers who left the area.
Shaffer was among the county’s worst polluters, said Dr Amjad, claiming that Minden residents for decades were exposed to wildly elevated levels of PCBs. They were commonly used to insulate electrical equipment until 1979, when the EPA banned them as a ‘possible’ human carcinogen.
A June 1993 public health assessment by the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry identified potential ways people could be exposed to PCBs in Minden. This included going on the grounds of the fenced-in Shaffer site, on-site workers in the Shaffer equipment building, children playing in yards and Arbuckle Creek, as well as people eating snap turtles from the area.
Dr Amjad worked with various hospitals in southern West Virginia for more than 20 years; he told DailyMail.com that, after speaking with cancer patients who live or have lived in Minden and studying their medical records, at least 36 per cent of residents have been diagnosed with a form of cancer. He publicly called out the EPA for failing to protect Minden residents for more than two decades.
His daughter, Dr Ayne Amjad, 39, watched her father fight for the people of Minden from a young age and actively helped him as she, too, became a physician and obtained a masters in public health.
She tells DailyMail.com that her father always reasoned: ‘If I’m going to be recognized for any efforts in my life, I would like it to be for the people of Minden.’
‘That was a big thing for him – probably his most passionate project that I could recall, and he did a lot of stuff,’ she says. ‘Every day he would text me or call me with some exciting news, showing me all the emails, showing me everything that’s going on.
‘He was very passionate that … something would be done, at least recognize that the people of Minden were disadvantaged mainly, he felt, because of their economic status and because of where we live and so forth – that they got dumped on literally and didn’t get any help, even though he was fighting for that since the early 80s.’
Dr Amjad had turned 70 just days before his death, which came quickly, though he had struggled with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, says his daughter – who intends to take up where he left off in his quest to help the people of Minden.
‘He was never in the hospital, he was never sick, per se – he didn’t have time to be sick,’ she says.
In 1985, an 11-member watchdog group, Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County, also formed and pushed for continued EPA soil sampling in Minden.
Lucian Randall, the group’s vice president, was one member who has already died from cancer. Randall was a former coal miner who lived next to the Shaffer site. He had collected information on the PCB contamination prior to his death. Another member, Thelma Phillips, has colon cancer and the group’s leader, Larry Rose, is alive but in poor health; he’s being screened for cancer.
The EPA initially denied the residents’ requests for more soil sampling, saying that PCBs no longer posed a risk there, according to court documents. It was only after the group petitioned West Virginia politicians and held rallies that attracted protesters from other states did officials agree to retest the site in 1990.
In March 1990, EPA testing validated residents’ concerns: soil samples showed PCB contamination at Shaffer and agents found more contaminated barrels buried at the site, according to court documents. This prompted the agency to conduct a second clean-up effort the following year, with millions of dollars wasted on mismanaging the site. In 1992, the EPA tore down the site and constructed a cap over it.
The same year, the agency sought to recover its costs from Shaffer, now bankrupt, Berwind Land Company, which leased the land to Shaffer, and Johns Hopkins University, though the suit was later thrown out after revelations about an EPA official lying about his credentials.
Dr Amjad charged that the EPA and state health officials have shirked duties to Minden residents and that a government buy-out of properties may be the only solution to save them.
Despite the EPA’s efforts to extract and remove contaminated soil on the Shaffer site – they made three attempts between 1984 and 1991 – they ultimately determined a year later that it was best to destroy and construct a cap over the site.
Responding to concerns from Minden residents, the West Virginia Cancer Registry conducted a series of cancer cluster studies in Fayette County from 1979 to 2016, finding a normal-to-expected rate of the disease among residents.
An agency spokesperson wrote in an email to DailyMail.com, after declining multiple requests for a phone interview: ‘The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau for Public Health will reiterate, there is no current data in the West Virginia Health Statistics Center and West Virginia Cancer Registry to support a cancer cluster in Minden.
‘It would be highly inappropriate to unnecessarily alarm residents by misconstruing a limited data set.’
Though the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health stressed that the data does not support a cancer cluster occurring in Minden, emails seen by DailyMail.com suggest that not all agency representatives agree with its findings.
‘It does show a much higher cancer death rate than Fayette County in general. It is still small numbers, but given the tiny population the rate is concerning,’ an agency statistician wrote in an August 7 email to Dr Amjad.
A cancer cluster is hard to prove. It may be a statistical fluke, or sometimes there are other confounding variables like an older population or a higher concentration of smokers. But the state’s cancer cluster studies are flawed, Dr Amjad said, since they rely on health information collected from death certificates, which are often inaccurate.
More significantly, Minden has no hospital. As a result, Dr Amjad said, the studies excluded many residents and Shaffer employees who moved away or died in hospitals outside Fayette County.
Many residents have undergone physical examinations, providing blood and urine samples for analysis. Dr Amjad told DailyMail.com he collected and sorted all the information to determine Minden residents have a significantly higher incidence of cancer compared to other towns – possibly 20 times higher in the case of certain cancers.
Ms Worley-Jenkins is one of those residents who’s determined not to die in Minden, though she says she and others in the town can’t afford to move on her monthly pension of $1,427 from her days as a local welder and restaurant manager.
‘Nobody wants it. It doesn’t have value to it,’ she said of her one-acre property, valued around $85,000, which has depreciated in value because of the PCB contamination in the area.
‘These people can’t replace their homes. They have no money for travel, they barely have enough money to eat. They don’t even have insurance, half of ‘em.’
Since moving to Minden as a child, Ms Worley-Jenkins said that, in addition to her cancer diagnoses, she has suffered a range of skin ailments, including inflamed hair follicles on her head, which doctors could never fully explain. But several years ago, she says Dr Amjad stated that her conditions were the result of exposure to ‘toxic substances’.
She rattles off a list of friends, all residents, diagnosed with or deceased from cancer. One childhood friend has ovarian cancer; another is infertile. Her other friend had skin cancer and is now dying of lung cancer, she says.
‘I have to laugh about it or I’ll cry,’ Ms Worley-Jenkins says.
Dr Amjad urged the EPA 25 years ago to relocate Minden residents because of their exposure to PCBs, but his request fell on deaf ears. The agency returned to the town in June, after residents worried a proposed sewage project could upset the site, to conduct a month-long sampling of 20 locations on county and private properties to test for the chemicals.
The EPA has yet to release the results for Minden – and many residents say they don’t trust the agency after their experiences with the EPA in the 1980s and early 1990s, when officials sealed off the about one-acre Shaffer mine site and told residents that it was unlikely the soil was contaminated and that their health wasn’t at risk.
Dr Amjad said it’s ‘impossible’ to clean the Shaffer site because the half-life of PCBs is 100 years.
The toxic history of Minden: The once-thriving coal mining town where at least 36% of residents have been diagnosed with a form of cancer
The EPA’s history in Minden began shortly after an unidentified Shaffer employee reportedly notified state officials that PCB oil was stored at the company’s site, according to court documents from a June 1992 district court case. A West Virginia Division of Natural Resources agent notified the federal agency, which sent investigators to the town sometime in November 1984.
Investigators found oil from capacitors and transformers stored in containers on the Shaffer site. Employees admitted to pouring PCB-laden oil on the dirt roads to combat the dust, according to testimonies submitted during debate over the Superfund Reform Act of 1994.
Long-time Minden resident Darrel ‘Butter’ Thomas, 58, claims Shaffer employees dumped between 100 and 200 gallons of this oil every other day for around 12 years: ‘It was huge.’ Mr Thomas says he’s surprised he hasn’t experienced any health problems because he played on the site as a child.
In fact, many long-time Minden residents have fond memories playing on the site as children. They wonder now why there were no signs warning them of the potential dangers.
Frank Ward, 70, is another long-time resident of Minden. The former Shaffer employee confessed to The Register-Herald in June that while working for the company in the 1960s he dumped PCB-laden transformers at various mine sites in town.
In his June interview with the newspaper, he said he didn’t know there was a possible link between the chemicals and cancer until after he left Shaffer. Since then, he says he’s seen numerous Minden residents, including his mother, die of cancer.
‘I’m guilty of it, big time,’ he said – though he declined requests for comment from DailyMail.com.
When Anna Shaffer, daughter of company founder and owner of the namesake site, testified in 1992 that she didn’t have the money to clean the area, and Berwind Land Company, which leased land to Shaffer, denied responsibility, the EPA sent a team led by Robert Caron. He was later sentenced to three months of home detention for lying to the agency about his education and expertise, according to court documents from 1992 and 1993.
Caron suggested use of a new technology, a ‘solvent extraction method’, for cleaning the site, which, at the time was the seventh largest clean-up in Superfund history. Using this method, the EPA washed contaminated soil in methanol to extract PCBs. The agency was trying to avoid transporting the chemicals to a remote landfill – but their attempts failed.
A year later, they abandoned the method and removed 4,735 tons of contaminated soil to Emelle, Alabama, home to the nation’s largest hazardous waste dump, according to court documents. According to the EPA, they’ve implemented multiple clean-ups that would total $6,890,490.
But certain fish breeds in the New River, which flows through Fayette County, have been found to have low levels of PCBs, among other chemicals, and should only be eaten once a month, according to the West Virginia Fish Consumption Advisories. Minden residents told DailyMail.com that they’ve caught catfish in the New River with sores that look like cigarette burns.
PCBs move up through food chains, from insects to the creatures that eat them. The chemicals accumulate and remain stored in fat in top predators like bald eagles, found to breed and nest in southern West Virginia, and humans, who can transmit PCBs through breast milk, Dr Amjad said.
Is fracking the new threat looming over Minden? Residents buy bottled water because they worry it’s still not safe to drink from the taper chemicals
And many Minden residents worry that history is repeating itself as a potential new threat looms over the town: Fracking.
West Virginia residents are exposed to toxic fracking fumes more than any other state
West Virginians are exposed to toxic fracking fumes more than any other state
Roughly half of West Virginians live near an active oil or gas well, a new study reveals.
Researchers from at PSE Health Energy, the University of California, Berkeley and Harvey Mudd College produced a state-by-state comparison to see which ones had a high amount of people living near these wells.
West Virginia topped the list with around 915,000 residents being exposed to harmful toxins on a daily basis.
Experts say the report should be a red flag to public health officials that protective regulations and policies need to be improved to help prevent exposure. Wells on state and private lands, where most fracking occurs, aren’t regulated.
The Environmental Protection Agency can regulate air and water pollution from drilling sites but not the drilling process.
The wells contaminate the quality of the air, water and soil and increase harmful toxins, such as benzene – present in coal tar and petroleum – and formaldehyde.
People living within a mile of these toxic fumes have an increased risk for getting cancer, heart disease, dementia or a neurological problem.
Birth defects, such as pre-term birth, low weight and congenital heart defects have also increased around the areas with active oil and gas production.
The study states that there should be a regulated distance between fracking operations and places where people live, play and learn.
Time has shown the ecological cost of coal mining, says Ms Worley-Jenkins, but whether fracking will bring an economic boom or environmental doom has yet to be seen.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling technique using pressurized mixtures of water and chemicals to extract natural gas from deep rock formations like the Marcellus Shale, which runs through West Virginia.
The rapid advent of fracking in West Virginia and former coal mining operations have led to contaminated water in Minden and other rural communities in the state, various studies claim.
A 2014 study by Duke University found that contaminants associated with oil and gas wastewater had spilled into Wolf Creek, a waterway that feeds into the New River – a water source for thousands of people. The results add to an increasing body of work pointing to greater risks from the transport and treatment of fracking wastewater.
The gas industry produces thousands of tons of this waste and companies and state regulators struggle to find safe ways to dispose of it.
There’s little federal oversight and a patchwork of state regulations regarding this type of waste. Each state’s left to figure out its own plan.
The EPA only has jurisdiction over the wells if diesel fuel is among the chemicals. When Congress passed the Energy Policy Act in 2005 they allowed for broad fracking exemptions.
Locals may have reason to worry. Studies suggest that metals from coal mining activities have already contaminated Wolf, Arbuckle, Dunloup and Piney Creeks, and a number of incidents over the past few years in West Virginia serve as examples as to why officials shouldn’t downplay the risks of toxic pollution.
While there’s no actual fracking going on in Fayette County, Ms Worley-Jenkins claims plenty of toxic fracking wastewater is being hauled in from other areas and dumped in wells that are flowing down into Minden and also making people sick.
Opponents say the oil and gas industries have taken advantage of West Virginia’s ‘dirty-energy-friendly’ policies, which has led to the creation of 60,161 active fracking wells, according to the state’s department of environmental protection.
As of March, state regulations require fracking operators to complete and submit a list of chemicals they use. Operators can, however, withhold a chemical or chemical concentration if they consider it to be a trade secret.
West Virginia is one of 28 states that require disclosure of some fracking fluids.
Today, roughly half of West Virginia’s population lives near an active fracking site, a new study has revealed.
Researchers from PSE Health Energy, the University of California, Berkeley and Harvey Mudd College looked at the nationwide measurement for the number of people living near active oil and gas wells.
When people live within a mile of these operations, they have a higher risk of being hospitalized for numerous medical issues, including heart and neurological problems, cancers and asthma.
Fayette County banned wastewater injection wells in 2016 as a reaction to residents’ complaints about the safety of fracking waste. The ordinance, although praised by local environment groups, was challenged by oil and gas companies.
While the Duke study found toxic fracking chemicals in Wolf Creek, a spokeswoman with local water utility West Virginia American Water told DailyMail.com that the creek is being monitored by the New River Water Treatment Plant. She says the plant has not detected any fracking-related contamination.
But Ms Worley-Jenkins and other Minden residents remain distrustful, often buying bottled water that eats into already tight household budgets. All along people’s fences in the town, dozens of plastic gallon water jugs pile up because they don’t think it’s safe to drink from the tap.
And the New River is also a major tourist attraction in West Virginia, whose reputation is as a ‘wild, wonderful’ destination – a slogan stamped on state license plates which could be tarnished by reports of tainted waters.
Rafting companies like American Canadian Expeditions, better known as ACE Adventure Resorts, take tourists from Oak Hill down the New River to Minden.
Jerry Cook, ACE co-founder, told DailyMail.com that no testing he’s commissioned on the water and sediment near his company’s operations have found any contamination.
But the results of summertime EPA testing have raised yet another set of concerns. Although not in Minden, an object was found beneath PCB-contaminated soil near Fayetteville and is a suspected underground storage tank (UST). The area that was tested is at the entrance of Wolf Creek Park.
EPA Roy Seneca told the Fayette Tribune last week that the agency had never approved the burial of a UST in the location and had no records of one being stored there.
‘I think we can be relatively certain that the origin of these PCBs is Minden, at the Shaffer plant,’ Fayette Commission President Matt Wender told the newspaper. ‘It’s hard to believe somebody would just dump these things somewhere on the side of the road. How some rogue operator may have decided to dump some of this cleanup material is very troubling.’
Minden is a ‘really painful reminder’ of what happens when environmental issues become silenced, says Brandon Richardson, founder of Headwaters Defense, an environmental group based in nearby Oak Hill.
‘The water around here can’t really be trusted to drink because the pollution from Minden washes into the river,’ says Mr Richardson. ‘The pollution from Wolf Creek and the injection wells in the fracking washes into the New River and then downstream of all that industrial activity is where we recover our drinking water from.’
Drinking water quality is often dependent on the wealth of residents, says 26-year-old Richardson. Small communities oftentimes have to fend for themselves with little help from state and federal governments, he adds.
Every time the area floods, residents are reminded of Minden’s coal mining past. When heavy rainfall hit Minden in June, the three inches of flooding renewed residents’ fears of PCBs. Video footage taken by residents after the flooding shows what could be PCBs turning up on the surface of puddles as a rainbow-colored sheen. PCBs tend to not evaporate or easily dissolve in water, Dr Amjad said.
Over the past four decades, an immense amount of effort has gone into cleaning the country’s polluted waters. Environmental laws have stopped the dumping of coal wastes into streams and regulated pesticides. But the latest federal budget imposes cuts to water-quality protections like the Superfund program.
This would put a curse on future generations of Americans, says Ms Worley-Jenkins. She doesn’t want her 10 grandchildren, two of whom have chronic illnesses, to shoulder the burden.
Ms Worley-Jenkins says the flow of polluted water into creeks and rivers is everyone’s problem.
‘It’s not just affecting this area; it’s affecting everywhere this water runs to,’ she says. ‘This water runs down into Charleston and into the Ohio River and it continues to go to the Mississippi. So, it’s not just our problem.’
Written by Jordan Gass-Poore and published by The Daily Mail ~ September 21, 2017.
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