'No Escape': Alarming Cancer Rates at Prison Built Next to Toxic Coal Dump

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'No Escape': Alarming Cancer Rates at Prison Built Next to Toxic Coal Dump

Groups call for environmental justice as investigation documents extensive health problems at Pennsylvania prison that may be linked to nearby coal ash facility

This image, from Google Earth, shows the proximity of the prison is to the Canastrale dump site.

A report released by human rights groups in Pennsylvania on Tuesday questions whether cancer rates and other serious health ailments among inmates at a maximum security state prison are connected to an adjacent coal waste dump. If so, the breach of environmental justice could necessitate shutting down the prison, they say.

The State Correctional Institution-Fayette is located in LaBelle, a rural Pennsylvania town that is also home to a 506-acre coal ash dump that contains about 40 million tons of waste, two coal slurry ponds, and millions of cubic yards of coal combustion waste, owned and operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting. The Canestrale facility receives coal ash waste — known to contain mercury, lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, cadmium, boron, and thallium — from coal-fired plants throughout the region.

The investigation, "No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette" (pdf), documents health problems — respiratory, throat, and sinus conditions; skin irritation, rashes, and hives; gastrointestinal problems; and cancers — among inmates at SCI-Fayette. In interviews and correspondence with researchers, over 80 percent of prisoners reported respiratory, throat, or sinus issues, such as nose bleeds, shortness of breath, and lung infections; 68 percent reported gastrointestinal problems; and more than half described skin conditions like rashes or hives. Between January 2010 and December 2013, 17 prisoners died while at SCI-Fayette; 11 of those deaths were due to cancer.

The report states that Matt Canestrale Contracting, which has owned and operated the dump since 1997, is in "perpetual violation" of the Air Pollution Control Act: "Ash is regularly seen blowing off the site or out of haul trucks and collecting on the houses of local residents as well as the prison grounds at SCI-Fayette." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not currently classify coal ash as hazardous waste.

Issued by the Abolitionist Law Center, Human Rights Coalition, and the Center for Coalfield Justice, the report notes that the prison's location "may be impermissible under the Constitution" if it is shown that prisoners — who, by virtue of their sentences, cannot escape exposure to pollutants — face a substantial risk of serious harm.

"Unlike reports of health problems from prisoners at other Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) prisons, most SCI-Fayette prisoners discuss symptoms and illnesses that did not emerge until they arrived at SCI-Fayette," it says. "The patterns of illnesses described in this report, coupled with the prison being geographically enveloped by a toxic coal waste site, point to a hidden health crisis impacting a captive and vulnerable population."

The report acknowledges that its findings are not definitive and that "a substantial mobilization of resources for continued investigation will be required to confirm the relationship between prisoner health and pollution from coal refuse and ash." It reads:

The preliminary findings...are intended to shine a spotlight on a serious and growing injustice, as well as to highlight one of the ways that mass incarceration interacts with broader concerns about environmental health and justice. Prisoners at SCI-Fayette need environmental justice: access to clean air and water, prompt diagnostic care, required surgical treatment, and all other necessary medical care. Health is a human right, and if the patterns that have emerged during our investigation are indicative of the harms and risks that accompany confinement at SCI-Fayette, then it is imperative that the prison is shut down.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that state Department of Corrections officials "take these matters seriously" and will review the groups' findings. While the Canestrale site is not accepting shipments of fly ash at this time, a proposal by the electric company FirstEnergy, currently under consideration by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, seeks to ship 3.5 million tons of coal ash by barge to the facility beginning in 2017. 

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