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March planned for Fayette County Superfund community

Thirty years ago, Annetta Coffman watched as her neighbors marched down the streets in Minden, rolling barrels and urging attention to their Fayette County community.

She didn’t really understand it; she was only 14, and her parents, who were working during the march, didn’t really discuss it with her. By that point, residents had known for five years that their community had been contaminated by PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls — often linked to cancer and other adverse health effects and banned by the federal government in 1979. But at the time, residents didn’t really know it was unsafe to play in the woods, or to ride bikes around town.

Some things have changed since 1989: Last month, the town was finally added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List, which shores up funding, enforcement and cleanup. Now, Coffman knows how serious the PCBs are, and she knows it’s safer if kids play in the road than in the woods.

Some have not: Regulators still haven’t been able to clean up the community, despite efforts to do so throughout the years. Residents are still getting sick. Many want to be relocated.

On Saturday, Coffman will be marching with her neighbors for these identical issues in Minden. The march, planned for 3 p.m., will follow the same route as the one in 1989. Some people who were there have died of cancer and other health problems linked to PCBs, Coffman said, but some will be back.

“Personally, I’m doing it to honor the people who stood up and did it before and to sort of pick up where they left off,” Coffman, who’s helped organize the event, said. “So they’ll continue to have a voice, you know? We have to stand up so their voices don’t just die out along with the town that continues to die off.”

She said she’s hoping at least 100 people will make it. Lois Gibbs, an environmental activist whose work led to the creation of the Superfund program, and Lady D, a popular R&B and blues musician and West Virginia native, are already confirmed.

But politicians who came to Minden last month to tout their involvement in getting the community on the National Priorities List either won’t be there, or didn’t respond to questions about it.

Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., won’t be there; neither Gov. Jim Justice nor his Department of Environmental Protection responded to questions about the event.

“It’s not that they don’t know,” Coffman said. “I think it’d be great if they did, I just don’t see that happening.”

The event starts at 3 p.m. at 1574 Minden Road, which is the old company store. The march will continue to Collins Park on Burgess Street, in Oak Hill. A candlelight vigil is planned for dusk.

Reach Kate Mishkin at kate.mishkin@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4843 or follow @katemishkin on Twitter.

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