How Toxic is My Town? Fayette County Teens Conduct Year-Long Science Project
Three high school students in Fayette County have devoted the past year to researching Minden’s possible soil contamination and the history of the Environmental Protection Agency's involvement in the Shaffer Site. Their project involved collecting soil samples at the former site of the Shaffer Equipment Company, which in the 1970s was in the business of repairing, building, and disposing of various types of transformers from coal companies. The company leaked polychlorinated biphenyl — more commonly known as PCB— into the soil.
Marcayla King came up with the idea to study the PCB contamination in Minden as part of a year-long research project.
She lives just down the road from where the EPA discovered the highest concentration of PCB in this community more than 30 years ago.
“This affects me too because I live here. Some of the water may come down to my area,” said King. “I feel like I want to know more about my community. I want to help us out because we’ve been fighting for awhile.”
King is an upcoming Junior at Oak Hill High School. She’s 15 years old and is doing this research project as part of a program called Health Sciences & Technology Academy, or HSTA. It’s a mentoring program for high school students, intended to increase the number of minority and first generation students that go on to pursue science and health in college.
“Each year they have to choose a topic to do a year-long research project,” said King’s mentor in the HSTA program, teacher Brandy Cook.
“It has to be something connected to their community. They do all the research they do the data collecting.”
For this project, Cook is helping King and her two classmates collect soil samples at the Shaffer site, to test how much PCB contamination may be left in the dirt. King said she was worried about getting close to some potentially dangerous chemicals in the process.
“Yeah, but I’ll take that risk. I want to find out more about it.”
Even though she’s lived here her entire life, she says she didn’t know much about the history of the Shaffer company, or the PCB contamination. She’s been four-wheeling here for years, and she said, she never realized the EPA had been involved in cleaning up this site.
Her classmate, Rose Gayhart, doesn’t live in Minden, but she said she thinks it’s important for young people to learn about issues like this in their area.
“We’re the next generation. If we don’t do something, who knows if someone will.”
We reach a swampy area where an orange flow of water seeps through the forest. Old rotting leaves clog the top of the small stream. The Shaffer Equipment company actually stood on top of a former coal mine site. According to one researcher I spoke with at the West Virginia DEP, Minden sits on top of multiple abandoned mine sites, criss-crossing and running beneath the ground for miles.
The students hypothesize that soil samples here in Minden will test higher in PCB levels, compared with those in the nearby community of Oak Hill
All of the sampling and testing is done on site, along the creekbed. The students are able to determine the results in about 20 minutes.
After awhile, the color of the mud in the test tube changes to a greenish brown color. On the instructions they match the color with the level of PCB, less than 50 parts per million— probably not high enough for alarm, at least not because of PCB.
But the water doesn’t look entirely safe either.
There’s an eerie orange tint to the water that is most likely due to acid mine drainage from one of the abandoned mines that lies underground here. No fish or tadpoles are swimming, and there’s a noticeable gassy smell bubbling up from the creekbed.
This test the students use is not as sophisticated as what the EPA uses. Maybe with a more expensive test, they could get a more exact figure of the level of PCBs in the dirt, or a better idea of what other contaminants may also be in this water.
King said she’s not surprised to learn the PCB isn’t very high. After all, this backs up what the EPA has reported in recent findings. But, she adds, any contamination at all, no matter how small, is alarming.
“I’m just now finding out about this. And it’s just kind of mind blowing because I didn’t know, this stuff has been happening for years.”
The hands-on experience getting out into the field and testing the dirt near her home has made her even more convinced that this is the type of work she’d like to study in college and go on to do as an adult. At least, she feels confident that some type of health science is in her future, maybe something where she can help people like her neighbors in Minden.
Later, when the students compare their test samples with the ones they collect in Oak Hill, they find them to contain similar levels of PCB. However, they later learn that the sample site they chose in Oak Hill was the site of a car crash. The accident may have caused PCB to leak into the soil, so they plan to repeat the experiment again next year.
King said she’s interested to find out what the EPA reports later this year when they release the results from their tests from Minden. The EPA has said most of the samples they collected in Minden in 2017 have contained less than 2 parts per million PCB, far under the levels that would pose serious risk to human health, according to officials.
There was one result that came back at 6.2 parts per million and another at 50 parts per million, but they are resampling that area again to find out if there is indeed a high enough risk to justify placing this site on the Superfund National Priorities List.
This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia about Minden and the EPA's Superfund Program. Click here to listen to the full episode.