Impossible Town

A doctor attempts to move a community
off its poisoned land

THE WAY INTO MINDEN is a narrow two-lane road flanked by classic, rolling West Virginia mountains. The houses are small, some vacant, some quite rundown, and the children who live there play mostly in the streets because they are told that is safer than playing on the land or in Arbuckle Creek, the local waterway that formed the valley.

There is problem of great consequence in Minden.

 

A sign at the edge of town welcomes visitors to Minden. At its peak Minden had over 2,500 residents. Today the population hovers around 250.

 

Wearing a worn ball cap and John Wayne T-shirt, Darrell “Butter” Thomas, a retired resident of many generations, encapsulates the situation as he walks down a street he calls “Death Valley Highway.” He points one by one to his neighbors’ homes. “Meryl died of cancer there. Bill Hayslette there, he died of cancer. He died of cancer. He died of cancer. Brain tumor. Blood disorder. Throat cancer. How can you tell me there’s not a problem?”

Waste oil contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) first toxified Minden. This is a chemical so lethal and persistent that the EPA banned it from being manufactured in 1979, but not before the now defunct Shaffer Equipment Company dumped the hazardous waste all over town. For decades since, PCBs have leached into Minden’s soil, water, air, and everywhere Arbuckle Creek spills when it overflows, which residents say happens several times a year. When a town is this contaminated, there is a good chance that many of its residents will eventually become unwell or die from exposure. That part of this story is not Minden’s alone, and Dr. Ayne Amjad is determined to do something about it.

Ayne is a sylphlike, understated forty-four-year-old who tends toward quiet until she has something to say. She is a second-generation physician, and a first-generation U.S. citizen raised to be a community steward. Being of service is the Amjad way. “People will remember you for what you do and not for what you have,” imparted Ayne’s late father Dr. Hassan Amjad, who grew up in an impoverished Pakistani town and ended up a West Virginian. He was a geriatrician, specializing in hematology and oncology, a devoted husband and father, a community advocate, and a connoisseur of tea. When Hassan died suddenly in 2017 at seventy, his untimely death shocked his family, patients, and friends who saw him as a giant walking among them. Hassan made proving that PCBs poisoned people in Minden his life’s work.

 

Dr. Ayne Amjad overlooks the 97-acres of land in Odd, WV that she purchased in 2017 with the dream of relocating Minden residents there.

 

Anointed by her father to continue the efforts he began in the 1980s, when the PCB contamination first began to surface in troubling numbers in his local patients, Ayne never expected to take up her father’s mission so soon. Hassan encouraged state and federal environmental protection agencies to investigate Minden, and during an early site visit they uncovered an oil-soaked soil sample showing contamination levels at 260,000 times higher than the EPA’s acceptable limit for PCBs in soil.

Over thirty-five years and three cleanup attempts later, the EPA continues to visit and test soil samples, but they have yet to determine if the land is so contaminated that everyone must leave, or if they will try to clean it up again. Ayne sees the EPA’s approach as missing the point. “I keep telling them the people are your samples. Stop testing the soil because the people are the samples with their cancer and their problems.”

Ayne estimates the cancer rate in Minden is about 80 percent for people who have spent most of their lives in the valley, but proof has been elusive, partly because of how the state’s cancer registry works. Today, when West Virginians relocate, they take up the zip code of their new hometown and shed the old one, unlike the environmental toxins their bodies bring along. This creates a dangerous disconnection between human and environmental health and is a problem Ayne is trying to solve.

 

An aerial view of Minden reveals the town’s remote location among the hills of southern West Virginia.

 

In 2019, film director Meg Griffiths and her native West Virginian collaborator, Scott Faris, began documenting the story of Minden, its community, and the Amjads. At the time, Ayne had just purchased ninety-seven acres of uncontaminated, forested land in Odd, West Virginia, about thirty-six miles south of Minden. The Amjads always dreamed of having land to farm and play on, and their efforts in Minden gave them the idea that this clean land could also be a place to relocate local families.

The ambition of relocating a toxified town to resolve an environmental travesty drew Meg and Scott to the story. Here was an aspirational community. An attempt at environmental justice. A solution in the face of impossible odds. They titled their film Impossible Town.

 

 

Yet after countless town hall meetings and relocation conversations, Ayne came to understand that most residents do not want to move, or at least be told where to move, regardless of the cost to their futures and their health. Only a few showed an interest in the Amjads’ land in Odd.

For the better part of the twentieth century, Minden was an upscale, flourishing coal town, home to twelve hundred West Virginians. Today, Minden has fewer than 250 residents left, many with multigenerational roots in the community. Even though most homes have little financial value now, the attachment is tenacious, and sentimental. The memories are rooted in a community they love. “What’s the final outcome?” Ayne muses. “At the end of the day, I think they just want a choice, and they want recognition that this is what has happened to us.”

To complicate matters, in 2015 Minden was annexed to the nearby town of Oak Hill, which has thirty-two times more residents. The annex happened to address a leak from an Oak Hill sewage plant that was further polluting Arbuckle Creek, and so too Minden. Over time these developments shifted Ayne’s focus away from relocation toward undoing the recent annexation, so that any restitution money Minden residents might receive from a lawsuit or government payout would belong to the town and people of Minden, not Oak Hill.

Subverting oversimplified stereotypes of rural America, and of Scott’s home state particularly, is important to the filmmakers. Knowing that representation matters in politics, industry, and cultural spaces, Meg and Scott went into the project hoping Impossible Town will help reshape the image of West Virginians in the media and increase access to resources and opportunities, which towns like Minden urgently need.

 

(Left) Dr. Ayne Amjad (right) and her mother, Lollie Amjad (left), review patient charts in Ayne’s Oak Hill office. The office was purchased by Ayne’s father, the late Dr. Hassan Amjad, to serve patients in Minden and the surrounding community.

(Center) Resident Percy Fruit leads a group of protesters while pushing an oil drum during the March for Minden in June 2019. Lucian Randall led a similar march through Minden in 1989 to raise awareness of PCB contamination left by the Shaffer Equipment Company. 30 years later, Percy and other Minden residents are still fighting for environmental justice.

(Right)Rising senior and Minden resident Marcayla King tests for PCBs in Arbuckle Creek as part of a research study coordinated by West Virginia University.

 

So far, three years of filming have been akin to keeping a video diary for the town, and a chronicle of Ayne’s life at a time of unremitting change. First, the adjustment to her father’s permanent absence. Then a relinquishment of her decade-long private practice as a physician to make a bold, strategic move into state politics. “I don’t want to be in politics,” she clarifies, “But if it means people will take my calls, then I’ll do it.”

In July 2020, West Virginia’s governor Jim Justice appointed Dr. Ayne Amjad the state’s new head health officer. Immediately, Ayne’s attention turned to COVID-19, among other emergencies: The merciless opioid crisis. A related and surging HIV crisis. The state’s first known lead pipe problem in Clarksburg. “There are so many things going on that it’s embarrassing,” Ayne imparts, “We don’t even have clean water . . . we need such simple things fixed.”

It’s easy to lump Ayne and her father into the group of health care workers making daily sacrifices to the detriment of their own health and life goals. Ayne once envisioned having children of her own. Now she worries about who will carry the torch if something happens to her before the work in Minden is done. She’s bothered tremendously by the lack of success to date and feels urgency to blunt the continued suffering and loss.

Of course, she is not alone. Butter Thomas’s walk down Death Valley Highway is not an arbitrary moment in the film. He is among a small group of local advocates working alongside Ayne. So is longtime resident Susie Worley Jenkins, a quadruple cancer survivor at sixty-eight years old. Ayne describes Susie as her inspiration, her best friend in town. She can’t fathom Susie passing without seeing something succeed for Minden. “I need something to happen,” she says, “Because every time you give people hope, something happens and shatters their dreams.”

 

(Left) Minden resident Darrell “Butter” Thomas, overlooks the New River, a popular destination for white water rafting in West Virginia. Minden’s polluted Arbuckle Creek flows directly into the New River, but no action has been taken to warn outsiders of potential contamination.

(Right) Susie Worley-Jenkins, a lifelong resident of Minden and four-time cancer survivor, has spent the last 30 years fighting for environmental justice in Minden. Though she freely admits she’ll probably never leave Minden, Susie fights for the next generation’s right to grow up in a safe, clean environment.

 

Will Minden and the other more than 1,300 lethally contaminated sites on the U.S. National Priorities List remain impossible places to live? Remediation is unhurried work, bureaucratic, expensive, and not intended to address root causes. Yet as it goes with so many modern-day crises, the issues showcased in Impossible Town are systemic at their root, which means the solutions must be systemic too.

In many ways, the solutions seem to require a hard-won, systemic reframe that binds human health with environmental health and resets the protocols of every health care provider, hospital system, government agency, industrial process, and educational curriculum accordingly. One that vows to no longer tolerate the intolerable and purges the idea that some lives are worth more than others. It requires a belief system that we can overcome this health crisis, that it’s not too late, and that the solutions—no matter how radical—are within reach.

In other ways, the solutions seem excruciatingly simple. If we operate from the knowledge that we are what we eat, and drink, and touch, and breathe, it is all too obvious how our health reflects our environment’s health. So what will a systems change look like when that intersection is prioritized?

 

 

Signs warning visitors about the health risks of PCBs populate yards throughout Minden.

A two-lane road traces its way from the sewage treatment plant at one end of Minden to the recreational water park at the other.

 

For starters, Ayne suggests new questions for patient intake forms: Do you have well water? Do you live near an electrical line? Where does the food that you eat come from? Are you growing your own food? If so, what kind of soil is there? Do you live in or near an area that has chemical factories in it? “That’s what’s going to tell me how sick you are.”

Although Ayne misses her practice and patients, her political post is providing new motivation and insight as to why it’s so hard to make change. And she has more battles to fight. Clarksburg’s lead pipes are her next frontier. She assumes if Clarksburg has them, other towns in West Virginia do too, and she does not intend to leave her job as head health officer until she has changed the state’s policy for that detection and remediation process.

Back in Minden—amid the cultural challenges of residents not wanting to leave their ancestral homes, and those who do leave surrendering their zip code, and thirty years of indeterminate soil sample tests, lingering PCBs, sewage problems, regular floods, an aging population with deteriorating health, and a film crew capturing all the highs and lows—Ayne remains undeterred. Yet she, Butter, Susie, and the other local advocates need more help if this story is going to have a happy ending. They need to engage the next generation of “little pushers” who don’t like being disrespected or told no. People who don’t like being thought of as simpleminded, because they are not, or treated as if they don’t deserve better, because they do. “We all deserve to have a good place to live,” Ayne reminds, “And you don’t have to live there to fight for it.”

 

Jill Tidman is executive director of The Redford Center, a nonprofit organization that uses the power of storytelling to drive environmental health and justice and invests in projects that advance solutions and inspire hope.

The Redford Center Grants program supports cohorts of dedicated filmmakers working on feature-length environmental documentary films that are poised to have real-world impact, including projects like Impossible Town.

Comments

  1. Jill Tidman’s beautiful new essay on Dr. Ayne Amjad and Impossible Town in Orion Magazine is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. My heartfelt congratulations to Jill and the filmmakers of Impossible Town. Together, they represent a great testament to the important documentary film work that continues to be funded by the Redford Center grants program.

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