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Groups say fly ash near state prison in Fayette County, Pa. causing health problems

Don Hopey | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A report released today raises concerns about inmate cancers and other serious health ailments at a state prison that sits next to a massive Fayette County coal waste dump full of toxic fly ash.

The preliminary report on the ongoing investigation by two human rights organizations into prisoner health at the State Correctional Institution Fayette in LaBelle, found 11 prisoners died from cancer between January 2010 and December 2013, another six have been diagnosed with cancer and eight more have undiagnosed tumors or lumps.

Also, more than 80 percent of 75 prisoners responding to the investigators experienced respiratory problems, 68 percent said they experienced gastrointestinal problems and half have skin rashes, cysts and abscesses. Twelve percent, nine of the 75, reported being diagnosed with a thyroid disorder at the prison or having their existing thyroid problems get worse. Many of the prisoners have multiple, overlapping symptoms, the report said.

The 28-page report, titled “No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette,” was released today by the Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition. It is based on a year-long review of prison medical and mortality records, interviews with prisoners, former inmates and residents of LaBelle, and correspondence from more than 40 inmates.

“The number of cancer deaths, reported cancers and undiagnosed tumors raise an alarm. Those and the other illnesses show a need for a more thorough and systematic study of this situation,” said Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center and one of the authors of the report.

Mr. Grote said the inmate mortality rate at the Fayette prison is higher than that at all but two other state prisons: Graterford, Montgomery County, where more than 700 of the 4,000 prisoners are older inmates serving life terms; and Laurel Highlands, Somerset County, which serves as a nursing home for older, chronically ill inmates.

Susan McNaughton, a state Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said Sunday that once the report is released the department would review its findings and the issues and concerns it raises, adding, “We take these matters seriously.”

Dave La Torre, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, also declined to comment on the report but expressed concern for the union’s members.

“We are aware of some officers from SCI Fayette who are suffering form illness,” Mr. La Torre said. “We look forward to reviewing this report to see if there is any connection.”

“It’s scary,” Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy organization for state prison inmates, said. “If it’s true, the state needs to take immediate action. Inmates receive their punishment through sentencing and shouldn’t be further punished by unhealthy conditions in prison.”

She said the organization’s volunteer prison visitors have been aware of the inmate health concerns for several years.

The 2,000 bed, $125 million maximum security prison where all of the state’s vehicle license plates are made, opened in 2003. It was built on part of the old strip mine site that has been used for coal combustion waste disposal for 60 years and has been owned since 1997 by Matt Canestrale Construction Inc.

The combustion waste at the 506-acre Canestrale site, which borders the prison on two sides, includes 40 million tons of coal mining waste rock, two coal slurry ponds and millions of cubic yards of fly ash from FirstEnergy Corp.’s Mitchell and Hatfield’s Ferry coal-burning power plants in Washington and Greene counties. The plants were closed by the company in October 2013.

The Canestrale site is not accepting shipments of fly ash at this time, according to John Poister, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman. It does have the required state permits that allow it to do so and is in compliance with those permits, he said.

But FirstEnergy has asked the state for permission to ship 3.5 million tons of coal ash from its Bruce Mansfield plant in Beaver County by barge 90 miles up the Ohio and Monongahela rivers to the Canestrale waste site. That is under review by the DEP, Mr. Poister said.

Many of the prisoners surveyed for the report noted similar, visible signs of pollution that include “black clouds of debris blowing off the dump site; black dust collecting in the prison yard, on window sills and freshly fallen snow; and black and gray dust building up around the vents inside prison cells.”

Related: Coal ash cleanup timelines criticized

The fly ash is a fine particle material with the consistency of talcum power and containing sometimes high levels of carcinogenic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead and mercury. Those tiny airborne particles can be breathed deeply into the lungs and be transported in the blood to other organs, and peer-reviewed health studies have linked the fine particles to the four leading causes of death in the U.S. — heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease and stroke.

A 2006 report from the National Academy of Sciences found 24 potentially hazardous metals in coal ash.

And in 2010, an analysis of fly ash from the Canestrale site reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigative series, “Mapping Mortality,” found it contained concentrated levels of arsenic, barium, chromium, lead and mercury. Many of those same toxics also were present in dust samples taken from window sills, garages and an apple tree in the community of LaBelle, Luzerne Township, where between 2000 and 2008 residents died of respiratory diseases and heart disease at rates 20 percent and 25 percent above the national average.

“Human beings should not have to live in a toxic waste dump just because they’ve been convicted of a crime,” Mr. Grote said. “Building this prison in a coal refuse site shows a disregard for prisoners and staff, and further investigation is needed about how the prison was permitted and sited where it was.”

Unlike reports of health problems at other state prisons, the new report found that most of the symptoms and health problems experienced by prisoners at the Fayette facility emerged after they arrived at the prison.

“Our investigation leads us to believe that the declining health of prisoners at SCI Fayette is indeed caused by the toxic environment surrounding the prison,” the report said, but adds that a more in-depth investigation is needed to prove the link between prisoner health problems and the airborne pollution coming off the coal ash site.

The report also raised constitutional questions about the siting of the prison and the confinement of prisoners next to the coal ash disposal site, a situation it terms a “growing injustice.”

“Health is a human right,” the report states, “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.”

 

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

 

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