MINDEN, W. Va. (SBG) — The nation is littered with sites where industrial chemicals and hazardous waste were once used and then discarded. In some of those places, local residents are now facing serious health risks from dangerous toxins left behind. We look at one West Virginia town that’s in the midst in the midst of a cancer epidemic, and why communities across the nation need to take heed.
The Appalachian mountains of West Virginia are an outdoor adventurer’s dream. Home to America’s newest national park, New River Gorge, this area is booming with tourism.
But what few probably know is that to get to some of the park's most popular destinations, visitors must pass through a small town where, for generations, the rural community has been living a nightmare.
Darrell Thomas has called Minden home his entire life. But he revealed a dark side to Inside Your World Investigates, walking us down what he calls Death Valley highway, and rattling off 17 names of residents who all died of cancer.
So many cancers in one place. It’s a devastating reality for this once thriving coal mining town where there are so many reminders of the past, like the sign for Scappers Corner, where miners used to settle their differences after work. And the elementary school abandoned years ago due to so few children.
Linden's fortunates changed in the 1980s, about the time a local factory went bankrupt. That's when hundreds of containers filled with a chemical known as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCB were left behind on the property, contaminating the soil and water.
PCBs have been linked to cancer and were banned in the US in 1979. But before health risks were known, they were treated as harmless industrial chemicals. Minden locals told us that for many years spent PCBs were dumped in mineshafts, sprayed on dirt roads to keep down dust, and even used by townspeople as fire starter.
Minden once had a population of about 2,000. Now, it’s down to less than 250 people.
Susie Worley-Jenkins, a lifelong resident and four-time cancer survivor, has been sounding the alarm about Minden's health worries for years. She told us she believes Minden is a cancer cluster, and she can name as many as 400 people who have died from cancer.
But there's been no acknowledgment by the government a cancer problem exists, according to Congresswoman Carol Miller. She said it's past time for Washington to step up. The cancer epidemic here, she told us, has reached crisis levels.
Everyone's had members of their family who've had some type of cancer and to have so much of it here does raise a red flag," Miller said.
She's pressing the EPA to take action.
Inside Your World Investigates traced what the agency has been doing for decades:
Susie Worley-Jenkins remembers when EPA workers came to Minden. As news footage from the visits confirmed, EPA workers were dressed in hazmat suits and wore respirators when visiting the area, but they told local residents they had nothing to worry about. She told us locals offered the workers an opportunity to drink tap water, but the EPA workers refused.
In a written statement, the EPA told Inside Your World Investigates, “The complex nature of cancer makes it challenging to establish a connection between cancers or other illnesses and environmental exposures. ... The EPA works closely with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to be responsive and address concerns as they arise with the community.”
The old factory site is not the only problem the town faces. At the other end of Minden was a landfill that operated for more than 50 years. State officials told Inside Your World Investigates the site never had an operating permit, so they don’t have records of it, but locals told us hazardous waste was routinely sent there before a 1976 federal law banned the practice.
That landfill drains into the New River, which is the source of drinking water for the entire region. And it’s where thousands of tourists go swimming, boating, and whitewater rafting, including at America’s newest national park.
Many residents, like Steven Hayslette, who represents Minden on the nearby city council, are not only worried about their health. They also feel trapped because their life savings are stuck in homes they can’t sell. Residents believe the only workable solution is for the federal government to relocate everyone to a safer community.
If your house is on fire, you're not going to sit in the house. You're going to move," said Hayslette. "Minden is on fire, with all these chemicals and toxins."
At a spirited town meeting, the consensus is that federal and state authorities have ignored Minden for far too long.
The office of Gov. Jim Justice told Inside Your World Investigates, “The Minden site is currently an EPA-led site and the relocation of residents in or near Superfund Sites due to health concerns related to the site is solely at their discretion."
Cancer hangs over the town like a storm cloud, but if you look at the state cancer registry, you wouldn’t know it. That’s because it documents the physical location where someone died, not where they actually lived. Because Minden has no medical facilities, nearly everyone dies someplace else.
That creates a misleading picture that locals say is one of the reasons they’ve been ignored. In 2019, Minden was finally named a Superfund site, one of 11 in West Virginia, and nearly 1,300 nationwide. Most Superfund sites are at current or former military bases and industrial facilities. In Minden’s case, the Superfund designation came without any money or resources to clean up the contamination. Naming a location a Superfund site does not guarantee it will be cleaned up. The Superfund list guides the EPA in determining which sites warrant further investigation, and in identifying what remedial actions may be appropriate.
All these years later, Minden’s toxic legacy continues to endanger its remaining residents. Resident Darrell Thomas fears that's how the story will end, when the final person living in the town passes away.
"Eventually, Minden will be gone," he said.