The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representative who conducted a 90-minute conference call Thursday evening to update the public on the remedial investigation into a toxic pollution site in Minden that has beleaguered residents there for decades asked each person who had questions about the EPA’s work whether their questions had been answered.
Many said no, and even those who said yes questioned the efficacy of the EPA’s data collection and testing methods and lamented the continuance of a status quo in which they feel unsafe in their own community as EPA officials pledged to evaluate potential cleanup alternatives after wrapping up the investigation.
The conference call focused on the remedial investigation at the Shaffer Creek/Arbuckle Creek Superfund site, including Shaffer Equipment Co. property and contaminated Arbuckle Creek sediments. In May 2019, after residents had voiced concerns with the EPA and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection about contamination at the site and the threat of migration into residential properties, the site was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List of sites of high priority where hazardous substances or contaminants have been or might be released.
Site soils and sediments were historically contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, which were used by the Shaffer Equipment Company from 1970 to 1984 to manufacture electrical substations for the local coal mining industry.
The Shaffer Equipment Company used PCBs from 1970 to 1984 that contaminated the site, with leaks and dumps contributing to PCB contamination in soils and washing into nearby Arbuckle Creek sediments, according to the EPA. The PCBs were used to manufacture electrical substations for coal mining.
PCBs have been known to have carcinogenic effects.
Low contamination levels have also been observed in Arbuckle Creek on New River Gorge National River property used for recreation and fishing, according to the EPA.
The EPA says the goal of the remedial investigation is to determine the extent of the contamination and potential human health impacts.
Aaron Mroz, the site’s EPA project manager, said during the call that it’d be better to haul away PCBs rather than cap them to avoid leaving waste in place.
In a video that the EPA encouraged conference call participants to watch prior to Thursday’s call, the agency highlighted the results of testing conducted during the first phase of the remedial investigation, which lasted from Nov. 2019 to March 2020.
Mroz reported in the video that most of the 10 site areas investigated during the first remedial investigation phase yielded results above screening levels and would require additional sampling.
The highest total PCB congener concentration could have been used to trigger an immediate environmental protective response, but such a response was deemed unnecessary since the sample was collected 6 inches below the ground where exposure is limited, Mroz said in the video.
One of the callers said that contamination on the site had appeared to shift after flooding in June and asked if that would merit immediate action.
“I’m not sure if the EPA is in agreement that there’s any contamination moving. Once PCBs get to where they’re at, they don’t move that much,” Mroz said, adding that the PCBs did not pose an ingestion risk 6 inches underground.
Sampling in the second phase of the remedial investigation is planned to start in the spring of 2021 and last into the summer or fall of 2021. Mroz said he was planning a trip to Minden the week of Jan. 18.
Officials faced several questions about why no biomonitoring data collection is planned to gauge the site’s human health impact.
Lora Werner, Region 3 director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, responded that the normal process is to base conclusions about human health effects on a review of environmental data and that a past collection of biomonitoring data at the site was “relatively special.”
“We don’t need dirt samples anymore,” said Dr. Ayne Amjad, State Health Officer and Commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, who has advocated for the Minden community in its struggle to have environmental concerns addressed, a fight that her father Hassan Amjad, an oncologist, waged prior to his death in 2017. “People with their cancer history are the samples to us.”
Susie Worley-Jenkins, a longtime Minden resident who said in 2019 that a head count taken on Minden residents who had succumbed to illnesses related to PCB exposure was 447, greater than the town’s population of around 250, took issue with the EPA’s choice of sampling sites and suggested places where the agency could get more representative results.
“Are you going to do testing that we actually want?” Worley-Jenkins asked.
“I need to work with you to determine where the appropriate [testing] locations are and determine how we can get this in the next work plan,” Mroz told Worley-Jenkins.
Sampling has indicated that the site’s environmental risk isn’t likely to merit relocating residents, an EPA official said.
The EPA took two removal actions in the 1980s and 1990s and a third, soil excavation near a capped area, from October 2019 to February 2020. But residents grew exasperated at the prospect of another year of sampling without a remedy and lamented what they say have been decades of far more talk from the EPA than action.
“I can’t speak for what happened in the past,” Mroz said.
“I’ve heard that before,” Worley-Jenkins said, “for 40 years.”