A once thriving coal town has turned toxic, and citizens are desperate for help

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Originally posted on thinkprogress.org

Written by Mark Hand

Percy Edward “Eddie” Fruit has lived in Minden, West Virginia his entire life. But without funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he cannot afford to move away from his hometown, contaminated by industrial chemicals over the past 40 years. Fruit wouldn’t be able to get anything from the sale of his house because no one would want to buy property in a toxic town.

“That’s the bad part about Minden,” said Fruit, who worked in the coal mines for eight years before becoming a pipefitter who installed sprinkler systems in schools and hotels. “There’s no one here anymore. Most people have died off or got away from the problem, or moved to find work.”

Minden was a thriving coal mining community during the first half of the 20th century. The town’s mines, located along the scenic New River in Fayette County, were some of the most productive in the region. Life wasn’t easy for the miners and their families, but they were able to make ends meet.

Things have changed since then. Minden is now a toxic wasteland where residents are afraid to drink the water and let their children play in their yards. Residents fear the PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls, a highly toxic industrial chemical — that were stored at an old equipment site starting in the 1960s and later dumped in an abandoned mine are now making them sick and killing them.

Since Minden was designated a Superfund site in the 1980s, the EPA has not been able to determine why such a large percentage of the community — at least four times higher than the national average — has been diagnosed with cancer. Federal and state health officials claim the evidence does not support a finding of a “cancer cluster” in Minden, a conclusion that angers the town’s residents. They believe officials would come to a different conclusion if Minden’s residents were not working class.

Over the past 30 years, the EPA has performed mostly cosmetic cleanup efforts. As a result, PCBs are still believed to be in the town’s water supply and its soil.

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