As Darrell “Butter” Thomas and I walked along a narrow street winding through Minden, West Virginia, he pointed at homes, reciting a grim list: there was a relative who died from cancer in that house, two people who died from cancer in another, old people, young people, children, pets that fell ill. Some survived, but many died.
Thomas and others in Minden blame the illnesses and deaths on polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are cancer-causing chemicals that have for more than four decades contaminated nearby waterways like Arbuckle Creek, a stream that flows through Minden into the New River.
Minden, population 250, sits at the bottom of a valley with ridges rising steeply to the north and south. It was home to eight mines — all now closed — and the Shaffer Equipment Company, which built electrical substations for the coal industry from 1970 to 1984. The company used oil laced with PCBs in electrical transformers and other equipment; Shaffer employees dumped thousands of gallons on the roads to stifle dust, as well as in other areas of the town and a nearby landfill. In the 1980s and 90s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency visited twice to remove contaminated soil, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers buried more beneath a cap of fabric and sand.
In 2017, the EPA conducted more testing and found PCBs present at multiple sites. Then, this year, the agency put the town of Minden on the Superfund National Priorities List — a move celebrated by West Virginia politicians as a victory for residents and the environment.
Alongside the endless cleanup, the outdoor economy in the area has boomed. Tourists pass through on their way to the ACE Adventure Resort — a 1,500-acre park with a water park, ziplines, and guided tours — or Needleseye Park, a new 283-acre park and rock-climbing destination. Yet despite all the attention from journalists, politicians, and scientists, and a surge in outdoor recreation opportunities, remediation at the Superfund site isn’t anywhere near finished. Doctors, activists and others are still trying to solve the mystery of whether the town’s cancer cases are linked to lingering PCB contamination, and many people say the outdoor industry is moving on without them — and without recognizing the polluted land it’s building on.
“People who work with ACE, they figure that’s their livelihood, and they’re not going to say anything,” Thomas said. “But if you catch people that don’t have affiliation with ACE, you’ll get the true story.”
Many former coal communities in Appalachia are using their scenic rivers and mountains to attract visitors in search of adventure on foot, on mountain bikes, and in kayaks. As the coal industry declined in Fayette County, West Virginia, cheap housing and storefronts opened the door for a booming whitewater rafting industry along the New River Gorge National River, where class IV river rapids wind through a deep canyon between rocky cliffs and rolling hills.
In the 2000s, ACE, along with several other long-time companies, expanded to outdoor adventure destinations with high-end lodging. By 2014, the Washington Post reported that ACE and another outfitter dominated business at the New River Gorge, providing 80% of river trips in a county that markets itself as “the live, learn, work and play outdoor recreation capital of West Virginia.” The resort employs hundreds of people, although many work seasonally.
“They’re drawing people from all over. They know how to market effectively. They’ve shown their business is diverse; they can do not only rafting but recreational lodging,” said Joe Brouse, director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, a four-county regional economic development agency. “They’re a major contributor to the New River Gorge economy.”
The resort’s growth coincided with EPA’s attempts to clean up the contamination. But the stop-start nature of the effort throughout the past three decades, along with the fact that recent testing found high levels of PCBs, has frustrated residents who say the agency botched attempts to get rid of the pollution.
Many people in Minden began to resent the steady flow of visitors who passed through on their way to ACE, Thomas said. The dynamic worsened in 2001 when flash flooding blocked Minden residents from getting to Oak Hill, a larger nearby town. Some wanted to use a back road through ACE Adventure Resort, but said resort staff locked a gate on the road, leaving them trapped for days.
Thomas started to publicly call out ACE. He now has a large sign in his yard with the word “caution” repeated in yellow eight times across the top, before a lengthy explanation about PCBs that begins: “You have now entered an EPA Superfund site area.”
The sign has spooked at least one visitor who posted about their experience on TripAdvisor in June. “I could not enjoy any activities at ACE knowing I was so close to Arbuckle Creek and PCB contaminated water and soil,” the reviewer wrote. “Do your research about the local area before booking, you have the right to know! I wish I would have. I will not return to ACE and I do not recommend.”
ACE’s marketing director responded to the comment, saying the resort’s water and amenities aren’t contaminated by the Shaffer site. An ACE spokesman told Southerly the Superfund site is “historically a highly volatile topic in our community” before the company stopped responding to phone, email, and in-person queries.
“It seems like the outdoor recreation and tourism economy would be an incentive for agencies and others to make sure the water in the environment is clean, but yet, it’s also creates an incentive for the outfitters to not talk about it,” said Fayette County Resource Coordinator Kelly Jo Drey, who also works as a rafting guide.
Gene Kistler, a rock-climbing enthusiast, community activist and co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors, a Fayetteville gear shop that opened in 1994, is an exception to that norm. He participated in cleanup efforts in the county, hauling trash out of the Gorge and avoiding some areas altogether because of pollution.
“The opportunity to develop an outdoor economy is available mainly because of a played-out extraction industry,” Kistler said. “It’s the great American irony.”
The pollution has heightened the tension between Minden and its neighbors. Two years ago, Minden and ACE were annexed by Oak Hill, which has about 8,000 residents, largely to replace and upgrade Minden’s wastewater treatment system. Many Minden residents opposed the annexation due to concerns about higher utility bills, and one of ACE’s co-owners also spoke out against it during a 2015 hearing, saying taxes and other fees would be “a terrific burden” on the company.
But the sewer upgrade worked in ACE’s favor; a 60-room lodge previously blocked by environmental regulators due to a lack of wastewater capacity is allowed to be built with the new system. However, there’s still concern the sewer project disturbed PCBs in the soil. Two years ago, the EPA returned to do more testing and found four more contaminated sites, and one of the contractors laying new sewer lines withdrew from the job.
Bill Hannabass, city manager of Oak Hill, said the PCBs and Superfund listing hamper attempts to develop and market the area. He blames the pollution for being turned down for a recent $2 million abandoned mine land project. But activists say Oak Hill and the outdoor industry are more concerned with quashing calls for cleanup than with helping them pressure state and federal officials.
Meanwhile, Minden has become a shadow of its former self. “People there, they’ve got their house, and it’s not worth a penny,” Kistler said. “It’s a monumental human tragedy.”
Minden is one of 303 Superfund National Priorities List sites in 12 states in the South, which have nearly a quarter of the EPA’s listed total of 1,335 sites. But the places recognized by the federal government as priorities for long-term cleanup are only a fraction of hazardous areas in the U.S.
“Around the country, there are hundreds of thousands of toxic waste sites, with a tiny, tiny percentage on the National Priorities List,” said Kelley Christensen, a Ph.D. student at Michigan Tech who wrote her master’s thesis about Superfund stigma. “Superfund is something that most people in America deal with every day. One in four Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site.”
Christensen said the places most successful in reinventing themselves share key similarities: outdoor recreation had already been established; local champions are willing to put in the work of dealing with federal and state officials and advocating for their communities; and government officials and local citizens are able to reach a place of mutual respect, where officials actively involve community members in the process. One success story is the area encompassing Leadville, Colorado, placed on the Superfund priorities list in 1983 because of contamination from toxic mining byproducts. The city rebranded as a heritage tourism and outdoor recreation destination, partially because residents elected a board of supervisors willing to work with the EPA, Christensen said.
The community around Minden has the first two elements: an authentic history with whitewater rafting and other outdoor adventures, and community champions, like activists, local officials, and business leaders. But some say a sense of trust is elusive.
“I used to have total confidence in our government, but after dealing with this for three years, I’m sad to say I wouldn’t hit none of them with a handful of corn, federal, state or local,” Thomas said.
Minden isn’t alone in this struggle to move forward — there are a litany of communities in Appalachia and beyond like it. One is my hometown of Clifton Forge, Virginia, bracketed on the east by a mountain biking destination and on the west by Kim-Stan Landfill, a site placed on the Superfund National Priorities List in 1999. For 20 years, the landfill accepted asbestos, medical waste, 5,000 gallons of PCB oils, and aluminum sludges containing mercury. The EPA worked to clean it up, but toxic waste lingers: a 2015 report by the EPA found that the landfill drained into groundwater and wetlands in an area away from people. Clifton Forge is a burgeoning adventure town, but the landfill remains a taboo topic for some local officials.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and resentment that comes with a Superfund listing,“ Christensen said. “People say, ‘wait a second, our town contributed all this great stuff, and now you’re telling us we’re dirty?’ It’s a hard thing for people to deal with.”
No one knows for sure how many people in the Minden area could have gotten sick or died because of environmental contamination. For decades, Hassan Amjad, a hematologist and oncologist with practices in Beckley and Oak Hill, pushed for environmental testing in Minden after seeing a high numbers of patients with cancer. He conducted patient interviews, attended public meetings and advocated for government officials to look closer.
“He was trying to prove that the PCBs caused it, which is very hard to prove scientifically,” said Ayne Amjad, Hassan’s daughter, who has continued his work since his death in 2017. “Even now we have a hard time proving PCBs caused these cancers.”
Community activists say more than 550 Minden residents have died, including 152 since 2014. But the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health only records 81 cancer-related deaths in area between 1983 and 2014. That discrepancy stems from a variety of factors, including where a person died as opposed to where they spent their life, differences in methodology, and disagreement over whether deaths were from cancer. Some government officials, including Steve Blankenship, an epidemiologist with the Bureau for Public Health, deny the presence of a cancer cluster. Last year, Blankenship reported that there was no concentration of a single type of cancer, no groups of unusual cancers, and no cancers in unusual age groups.
The EPA is currently conducting more sampling as part of an investigation to figure out what comes next for Minden. That testing will “characterize soil contamination, determine site related contaminants and better characterize groundwater,” wrote EPA spokesperson David Sternberg.
Amjad, Thomas, and others continue to advocate for more testing, continued remediation, and for the government to relocate people who want to move. The EPA is working on the first two, but Sternberg said that “EPA rarely relocates residents and does not consider relocation unless the environmental data supports it.”
Minden’s aging population continues to dwindle: People are dying or moving away. Vacant and burned houses line the streets, separated by empty, overgrown lots. “It’ll be a ghost town,” Thomas said. “I really don’t see an effort from the government to get anybody out. They’ll just wait and let everybody die out like they have been doing.”
ACE has been purchasing vacant properties in town, which has raised concern among some residents. Linda Sharpe, who lives across from Thomas, claims ACE poorly manages the property next to hers: Weeds grow up on her fence and it sometimes floods. “ACE thinks they own Minden,” Sharp told me.
Some economic development officials say the buyouts are a viable path forward for the area. “They’re trying to do what’s best for their business, and quite frankly they’re doing what’s best for the community at the same time,” said Adam Hodges, a cooperative extension agent for West Virginia State University who serves Fayette County. “I think they’re buying up lots so someone doesn’t throw a trailer on it; they don’t have any interest in taking property from people. It is happening, but it’s a very slow process that way.”
ACE and West Virginia’s recreation industry are expanding with government support — and without much acknowledgement of Superfund site risks. Sternberg, from the EPA, said that “hundreds of formerly contaminated sites have been transformed into hubs of economic, recreational or residential activity.” Early this year, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced an $11 million initiative in partnership with ACE and the state park system to upgrade a state park. In late September, both of West Virginia’s U.S. senators introduced legislation to designate the New River Gorge National River as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, in order to attract more visitors.
Minden’s situation raises difficult questions about how an outdoor recreation-based economy can flourish when toxic sites are everywhere, and what happens when some people are left out of that growth. The town’s reputation and self-determination have been shredded by Superfund stigma. Rebuilding trust between community members, officials, and businesses will require navigating those jagged elements — an endeavor that’s maybe not too different from rafting the New River.
“There’s so much intense emotion wrapped around all these issues that it makes it really tough,” said Kistler, the gear shop owner. “We just need to come together.”
Mason Adams is a journalist based in southwest Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.
This story was supported by the Even T. Collinsworth Jr. Memorial Fund.
An earlier version of this story misstated which waterway flooded into Minden in 2001. It has been corrected.