Industrial chemicals dumped long ago still haunt Minden, W.Va., a community beset by cancer and fear. Like her father, physician Ayne Amjad is trying to track the links.
Even before Hassan Amjad’s family buried him on a West Virginia hillside, phone calls flooded his daughter’s office.
The callers remembered him as a kind man, boundless in his curiosity, fiery in his convictions, who had long maintained a medical clinic in nearby Oak Hill, in an old whitewashed house with a squeaky screen door and creaking wood floors.
But some of them also sounded worried. Ayne Amjad, a doctor like her father, heard the same questions again and again: Who will stand up for us now? Will we be forgotten?
Her father had made it his mission to get justice — or at least answers — for the people of this once-thriving coal town an hour south of the state capital. He told anyone willing to listen that industrial chemicals dumped decades ago by the now-defunct Shaffer Equipment Co. had long been poisoning residents.
In the final months of his life, the elder Amjad and his wife spent many days in Minden knocking on doors, scribbling detailed medical histories, hoping to document potential links between cancer and the polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that had been discovered throughout the area.
Local activists say that by their count, roughly a third of Minden residents have died from or been diagnosed with cancer in recent years. State health workers say the official numbers are much lower.
Many people want to leave this place, where ramshackle houses dot the small valley not far from the New River. Its population has dwindled to 250, and few who remain have the resources to move.
“He said if it killed him, he was going to figure out what happened in Minden,” recalls Percy Fruit, 63, who lives in the house where he grew up near the old Shaffer facility, and whose parents both died of cancer. “He just wanted the wrong righted.”
More than once, Amjad told his daughter, “If I’m known for anything in my life, I want it to be that I helped the people of Minden.”