Fayette County Flood Stirs Up Long Held Concerns On Cancer-Causing Oil Site
This story was updated on June 16, 2020, at 4:50 p.m. to include a statement from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The rain poured down for hours on Sunday, slamming the valleys of Fayette County with water. As the earth became saturated, local streams swelled.
Minden resident Marie Collins said the water washed out the underpinning of her house.
“We had to sleep in the car last night,” Collins said on Monday.
Weather experts estimate nearby Oak Hill received roughly 5.5 inches of rain in six hours. Minden is just a few miles away and lies in a valley.
“I was too scared to come in the house, because I was afraid my house would come off the foundation,” she said.
The next day, several feet of water surrounded the Collins home. Marie Collins said she noticed an oily substance floating on top. She said she could smell from inside her home.
Minden has a history with Polychlorinated Biphenyl, or PCB, a known cancer-causing chemical that electrical company Shaffer Equipment Company started storing in a nearby dump site back in the 1970s. The chemical waste site was discovered by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources in 1984. After years of lobbying the federal Environmental Protection Agency, last year the EPA added the Minden site to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites.
PCB has contaminated the soil in Minden, according to the agency, and residents fear the chemical is flushed out everytime it floods, much like Sunday night.
“I'm scared of [the] water now. I'm just so scared,” Collins said. “And then I have got three boys, a 13-year-old, an 11 and a seven-year-old. I don't want them to have cancer.”
On Tuesday, the EPA said initial inspections "indicate no significant damage" to the cap structure encompassing the dump site, or other structures the EPA has put in place to separate PCB oil from the Minden community.
"There is no indication that capped site material was transported away from the site," the EPA stated in a press release.
So far, other local and state-level emergency response to Fayette County’s flooding has addressed the more obvious damage to homes and roads.
Gov. Jim Justice issued a state of emergency for the county Sunday night, deploying state highway workers to the area to free up debris from the roads and begin repairing some of the more long-lasting damage.
A local state of emergency from the county commission that afternoon specifically named Oak Hill, Scarbro, Minden and Whipple.
Justice said in a virtual press briefing Monday morning there were no known deaths or injuries from the flooding. There were, however, nearly 20 home and car rescues by the local swiftwater rescue team.
“What we'll usually do is, by manpower, we’ll lower a small boat to the car and have two firefighters in there dislodge those people from the vehicle,” Oak Hill Fire Chief Tim Richardson said describing swift water car rescues. “And then we have a rope team that's coordinating with us at the same time to bring that boat back to the safe area.”
Not A First-Time Flood
Annetta Coffman, another lifelong local, recalled a disastrous flood to the area 19 years ago.
Every time the water levels rise for smaller, more regular floods that happen every summer, Coffman said residents are afraid to drink locally sourced water or do much outside.
“With oil, you know, it travels because it attaches to mud and, you know, right now, it's mud and sand everywhere, so, it's hard to tell exactly what the people right now are walking in,” Coffman said of the flood damage Sunday night.
Coffman’s home also flooded several feet high Sunday night, but she said it wasn’t as devastating as the flood in 2001, when she lost her first home and all of her possessions.
“You work so hard, you know, it's a poor community anyway, and you work to try to have things, and then you know, something like that can be gone within 30 minutes,” she said.
In addition to the oil, and the expensive loss of having to repair one’s home, or find a new one, Coffman said flooding tends to discharge raw sewage, too.
“And so that now is in our homes,” she said. “And so, you know, people are trying to figure out how to clean up their home. You know, you take the risk of getting Hepatitis A.”
Minden and the surrounding area has also been ravaged by sewage contamination, which was assessed by the EPA in 2016. According to the report, this was the result of failing and downright non-existent systems to manage human waste.
In 2017, a $23 million sewage and water drainage project began in efforts to curtail future contaminated floods. But Coffman said many of her neighbors’ houses were flooded with at least two feet of contaminated water Sunday night.
A Developing Response
The Division of Highways entered Fayette County Sunday evening, and will continue working from the area for the next week and a half.
Deputy State Highway Engineer Greg Bailey said Monday staff are prioritizing repairs in areas where there is no options for residents to take an alternative route.
“We’re focusing a lot on areas where people are completely blocked and don’t have a way out,” Bailey said Monday. During his virtual press briefing, Gov. Justice said he anticipated the DOH will have most repairs finished within a week and a half.
Warm Hands From Warm Hearts, a local outreach ministry operating the Center of Hope in Oak Hill, has set up cots in case anyone needs a place to stay. Director Mike Bone said the center also has a shower and a kitchen for anyone in need.
The Red Cross and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD, were gathering buckets of cleaning supplies to donate Monday morning, and assessing the best way to provide assistance, given restrictions from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As for Marie Collins, whose home sustained permanent damage in 2001 and now again Sunday night, she said she plans to eventually use lime, a powder chemical for flooding, to help battle the smell of oil and sewage in her front yard.
“I'm just, I'm just so ready to move,” Collins said. “If I had the money to move, I would move.”
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.
This story is part of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Southern Coalfields Reporting Project which is supported by a grant from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.