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Minden, West Virginia: A Brief History of “The Most Toxic Town in the US”

Hey there, readers! For those of you who have followed our blog and news posts over the past few months, you’ve heard us mention the town of Minden, WV time and again. Well, for our post this week we’re finally going to be going more in-depth into the history of “the most toxic town” in the United States and how it gained its notorious title, as well as what has and what is currently being done to address the contamination in and around the town. This post is long-overdue in not only addressing toxicity in Minden but also raising awareness towards remediation efforts which, as many Minden citizens claim, are just as overdue and needed. So on that note, let’s dive in.

West Virginia has an outstanding history and love-hate relationship with the coal mining industry. Although coal was first discovered in the region in the mid-1700s, coal mining didn’t become a practice until a century later when it began to replace resources such as wood and charcoal for use in peoples’ homes, river steamboats, and industrial furnaces including locomotives in the mid-1800s. It wasn’t really until after the US Civil War, however, that coal mines and resources began to truly draw attention – both domestic and international – from investors and corporations seeking to utilize these resources for broader industrial use. Much of the coal mined from the region was used not only to furnace train engines and the expansion of the railway industry in the United States but were also hauled out west for the towns and cities which were popping up across the frontier. At the same time, because much of the land around coalfields in the West Virginia region remained rural and mountainous, coal workers and many of the European immigrants who came to America looking for work, eventually ending up in these coalfields for labor, began to construct their own small towns in the area with the help of the companies they worked for. This was due largely to the need of daily supplies the laborers needed simply to live, as well as the need for a community where there previously was none.

One of these communities, formed in 1899 by then-coal baron Paddy Rend, was originally named Rend for the baron at the time. As the years crept on, the community would grow to eventually become known as Minden.

A coal miner circa 1880s West Virginia

It was only a few years prior to this, in 1883, when the first legislation on worker safety within mines in the region was passed, allowing for a state-employed mining inspector to review safety conditions within the mines. In 1890, the state union of United Mine Workers of America pushed for better safety measures to improve conditions for workers within the mines. After the turn of the new century, in 1905, the West Virginia Department of Mines was founded to help enforce mining safety conditions.

The implementation of these legislative measures was a new and extremely bold measure for the time. Bear in mind that founding unions and employing state inspectors to enforce safety conditions had rarely – if ever – been seen prior to 1883. For a reference of time, penicillin wouldn’t be invented for another 45 years, in 1928. Even as early as the 1880s, coal miners and mine owners were beginning to witness the harmful effects coal mining posed to human health. These days we’re extremely lucky to have a century-and-a-half of scientific research and breakthroughs to teach us the harm it can do, but back then this wasn’t the case. As my first employer told me fresh out of high school, “for every OSHA guideline you read today, there’s at least one person not here because of it.”

A report on the effects of coal on human and environmental health, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) is terribly widespread and, “contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the US: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.” The report contains a more detailed account of these effects and other coal mining may cause:

  1. Respiratory Effects: Air pollutants produced by coal combustion act on the respiratory system, contributing to serious health effects including asthma, lung disease, and lung cancer, and adversely affect normal lung development in children.

  2. Cardiovascular Effects: Pollutants produced by coal combustion lead to cardiovascular diseases, such as arterial occlusion (artery blockages, leading to heart attacks) and infarct formation (tissue death due to oxygen deprivation, leading to permanent heart damage), as well as cardiac arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. Exposure to chronic air pollution over many years increases cardiovascular mortality.

  3. Nervous System Effects: Studies show a correlation between coal-related air pollutants and stroke.  Coal pollutants also act on the nervous system to cause loss of intellectual capacity, primarily through mercury.  Researchers estimate that between 317,000 and 631,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with blood mercury levels high enough to reduce IQ scores and cause lifelong loss of intelligence.

  4. Global Warming: Even people who do not develop illnesses from coal pollutants will find their health and well-being impacted due to coal’s contribution to global warming.  The discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere associated with burning coal is a major contributor to global warming and its adverse effects on health and well-being worldwide, such as heat stroke, malaria, declining food production, scarce water supplies, social conflict, and starvation.

It isn’t simply the inhalation of coal particles that cause harm to human health, however. PSR claims, “negative health consequences at each step of the coal life cycle.” At the time of the PSR report’s publishing in 2009, coal mining leaded industry-related worker deaths in the US and was the leading cause of chronic health effects on coal miners.

A color-coated map showing cases of death from respiratory disease related to coal mining in Appalachia.

On top of dangers of to coal miners themselves, the communities around coal mines are just as negatively impacted. Mining operations including, “blasting, washing, leakage from ‘slurry ponds,’ the collapse of abandoned mines, damage done to streams and waterways, and the dispersal of dust from coal trucks during transportation pose health problems to communities around coal mines. The process of washing coal with chemicals prior to transportation for the market (referred to as “slurry”), can cause the release of “arsenic, barium, lead, and manganese” into surrounding wells thereby contaminating drinking water. Even the disposal of toxic residues after the coal mining and washing process can pose an issue as these toxins contain potential to leak into surrounding groundwater, eventually finding their way into other water supply sources.

With this plethora of problems caused by coal mining, extraction, washing, transportation, dumping, and use it’s no small wonder why coal mining slowly became less and less popular towards the end of the 20th-century. The coal mines of Minden themselves were closed during the 1950s. Yet here we are, nearly seventy years later, discussing the issues that remain in and around the town due to coal. So what happened?

One of many abandoned houses around Minden, WV

Since these coal mining communities were built and populated during periods of time when there was high demand for workers, they thrived (for lack of a better word). This is sheer nature – the higher demand there is for work in a certain area, the more people flock to that area and the more built-up it becomes. But over time, as the work in these communities became more and more scarce, and regulations on the work already there grew tighter, citizens migrated elsewhere to find better work and a higher quality of life for themselves and their families causing fewer resources to be produced and/or come into these communities. Minden is far from the only town this has happened to. The coal mining towns of Appalachia, especially in West Virginia, slowly dwindled in resources and population and are now infamous “ghost towns.”

A United States census shows that, as of 2010, Minden, WV was home to only 250 people, compared to the rest of Fayette county which has a total population of over 44,000. Of the 250 Minden residents, roughly 100 of them either are currently diagnosed or have been previously diagnosed with some form of cancer. One resident, Annette Coffman, said in a January article that she can name “35 people in her neighborhood who have recently died from cancer,” including her own mother who died in 2007 from a combination of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers.

Many citizens theorize that such widespread diagnoses of cancer stem from not only the toxic remnants of chemicals used during the coal mining and washing process but also from PCBs. The Minden-based Shaffer Equipment Company produced electrical equipment for the coal industry from 1970-1984, including transformers containing PCB oil. After the federal ban on PCB production in 1979, its said that Shaffer ending up dumping the contaminated equipment down one of Minden’s long-abandoned mine shafts, hoping that the problem and the liability of PCBs would be out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Decades later, however, we are soberly aware of the persistency PCBs have when left to their own nature in the open environment. Needless to say, Minden’s PCB problem didn’t stop there.

Sign outside a Minden home warning passersby of toxic PCB contamination in the area.

A 1984 investigation of the Shaffer Equipment site concluded that PCBs thought to have been disposed of for good by the company were leeching their way into the nearby Arbuckle creek. Two cleanups followed taking seven years, led by Bob Caron from the regional EPA office. The government later sued Shaffer for $5 million in damages for the cleanup costs, but then another curveball blindsided Minden residents: Caron had lied about his credentials. Distrust grew among Minden residents while their health continued to decline. A 1997 fire at a building which housed remaining contaminated materials prompted the United States Army Corps of Engineers to install a cap in 2002 over the site which residents have described as “a band-aid over a bullet wound.”

The once-proud coal mining town now feels the residual effects of a century of coal mining on top of decades of stagnant PCB contamination. Citizens like Coffman fear that little more – if anything – will be done to help Minden until it simply becomes another of Appalachia’s ghost towns.

However, EPA sampling of Minden’s PCB-ridden sites in October of 2017 found higher concentrations of PCBs than were previously conceptualized or recorded in Minden. Citizens of the town, including Coffman, have claimed they’ve asked for support from EPA and the State of West Virginia to include the town on the United States’ Superfund National Priority List to help expedite cleanup efforts in the town. For this to happen, the EPA must approve the notion, and have it agreed by the state. While it has yet to happen, Roy Seneca, press officer for EPA Region 3, says he remains hopeful it will happen in the future.

In the meantime, Minden citizens have been asking West Virginia Governor Jim Justice if there is any possibility of a buyout to help allow citizens who wish to relocate elsewhere an allowance of sorts to do so. Even Coffman, who has been a resident of Minden, WV for some sixty years, has said she can’t imagine the possibility of staying in her hometown much longer if no action is taken in either direction.

Soil samples were collected in Minden, WV for PCB testing

Whether a buyout to Minden citizens is offered or no action is taken by the government to expedite cleanup efforts in the town, either option acts as the figurative final nail in the coffin for Minden. Should either one take place it will only be a matter of time before Coffman and the 249 other residents of the town are forced to rebuild their lives in another community, leaving the toxicity of their hometown behind and writing it off as another one of Appalachia’s coal mining ghost towns. Ideally, if (or hopefully when) Minden becomes a designated Superfund site, becoming West Virginia’s 11th such site, cleanup efforts can kick off to remove PCBs from the town, and citizens and statesmen alike can begin a long-overdue and much-deserved revitalization of the community.

Unfortunately, it seems that Coffman and the other citizens of Minden can only wait and hope for the best outcome as the EPA continues to examine PCB-contaminated soil, sediment, and water samples from Minden collected last year.

In the meantime, please check back by our blog every Tuesday for news highlights of the previous week. Our team here at ecoSPEARS will be sure to keep you, our readers, informed of any and all up-to-date news coming out of Minden as it hits the press. And as always, remember: the solution requires all of us, but it begins with you.

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