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Environmental Justice Activists Fight Plans for Federal Prison on Mountaintop-Removal Site

Environmental justice activists are demanding federal agencies count prison populations when assessing environmental justice impacts.

Environmental justice activists demonstrated at the Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C., on June 13, 2016, to oppose plans for the construction of a new federal prison at a mountaintop-removal site in Letcher County, Kentucky.

Part of the Series

Activists from Kentucky and across the U.S. met in Washington, D.C., this week to highlight the intersections between environmental justice issues and the prison-industrial complex, and to protest plans for the construction of a new federal prison at a mountaintop-removal coal mining site that they say will impact the health of incarcerated people and endangered species.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) plans to allocate $444 million in federal money to construct a new maximum-security prison at a 700-acre site in Roxana, in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. The location is the site of a former mountaintop-removal coal mine and constitutes habitat for scores of endangered species. Mountaintop-removal mining involves exploding and flattening the tops of mountains to expose underlying coal seams, and has long polluted regional waterways. Appalachian communities living adjacent to such sites have been known to have poorer mental and physical health than others in the region.

A prior review of an environmental analysis of the Letcher County prison by Truthout and the Human Rights Defense Center showed that while the BOP has considered potential impacts on several endangered species, they haven’t considered what impacts the location’s former coal mines may have on the health of the estimated 1,200 people who will be incarcerated there if the prison is constructed.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky) has worked with the BOP to move the prison’s construction forward. If built, the prison would become the fourth new federal prison in eastern Kentucky and the sixth in the Central Appalachian region, which has undergone a boom in prison growth as the coal industry has experienced decline.

Local Kentucky activists with the Letcher Governance Project joined members of the Defense Center’s Prison Ecology Project and grassroots social and environmental justice activists from across the U.S. in the nation’s capitol to challenge the construction of the Letcher County prison on economic, racial and environmental justice grounds. They rallied in front of the BOP and Department of Justice headquarters in D.C.

They point to a long history in which the federal agencies have greenlit the construction of prisons on polluted sites, including old coal mines and dump sites for toxic waste, threatening the health of the prisoners and staff who work there.

As Coal Declines, Kentucky Activists’ Focus on Prisons

Prison construction has been presented as a supposed pathway to economic growth and innovation in eastern Kentucky, but activists say this portrayal is false and damaging. Last week, organizers with the Governance Project demonstrated at a local summit focused on job creation and economic development in the Appalachian region, unfurling a banner that read “Prisons Are Not Innovation” during Representative Rogers’s opening speech.

“Why does [Representative Rogers] get to decide how federal tax dollars are spent?” asked Sarah Estep, a Governance Project member. “It should be more democratic in how money is spent. We need real investments in real solutions, not a prison.”

Estep argues that even though the BOP has said the Letcher County prison will create about 300 new full-time jobs, previous prisons constructed in McCreary, Clay and Martin counties that were also estimated to create about the same number of jobs ended up employing only a small number of local residents because the majority of those hired were transferred in from elsewhere. As a result, Estep says, eastern Kentucky counties with new federal prisons still remain some of the poorest counties in the nation.

To challenge the idea that the prison will spur economic growth and create jobs in Letcher county, the Governance Project launched a social media campaign and hashtag #our444million for eastern Kentuckians to share their ideas for what projects and enterprises they would want to invest $444 million in other than a prison.

“We wanted to open this up to the community, and think bigger picture about what is possible in our community. If we don’t want a prison, what do we want?” asked another Governance Project activist, Elizabeth Sanders, who also co-manages a local radio station in Kentucky. “We want to be able to push back [against the prison] but also continue to build in terms of the framework.”

Pressure Mounts for EPA to Take Action

In addition to calling for a just economic transition from coal mining in eastern Kentucky, Governance Project activists joined with the Prison Ecology Project to take their environmental justice concerns to representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday, June 10, asking EPA officials to more stringently enforce environmental violations at federal prisons and to count prison populations in its environmental justice guidelines.

Many federal environmental justice policies have their origin in an executive order former President Bill Clinton issued in 1994 that required all federal agencies to weigh the environmental and health impacts of their actions, especially on marginalized communities such as low-income communities and communities of color.

But activists have charged that federal agencies’ environmental justice rhetoric is nothing but empty talk. Those agencies have rarely worked to incorporate feedback from the most vulnerable communities they affect, activists say. In fact, the opposite may be true. The trend during the past two decades has been a pattern of disregarding the interests of marginalized populations and permitting toxic industries — including prisons — to operate largely in communities that are poor or predominantly of color, disproportionately exposing those populations to industrial pollution.

In 2015, EPA representatives told the Ecology Project’s program coordinator, Panagioti Tsolkas, that environmental justice guidelines have yet to be applied to prisoners for the purpose of permitting because the agency relies on census data, which doesn’t count prisoner populations. While the EPA issues federal air and water permits for prisons, it’s not the primary or only agency involved in building and/or regulating prisons.

Tsolkas and the Human Right Defense Center point to a prior initiative in the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region, known as Region III, in which the agency took several enforcement actions between 1999 and 2011 after finding a number of environmental violations during inspections. Those violations included the disposal of hazardous waste and violations of air quality and water standards.

Tsolkas told Truthout that a group of about 30 advocates with environmental and human rights organizations met with EPA officials Friday to discuss federal prison sites across the nation that are located near environmental hazards. The advocates pressed EPA representatives to expand the Mid-Atlantic initiative to cover the whole country in order to more stringently enforce environmental violations at prisons. They also pressed the EPA to start applying the agency’s environmental justice guidelines to prisoners.

“We know prisons are, [in] vast majority, people of lower-income status. We know that they’re disproportionately people of color, specifically Black, Latino and Indigenous people,” Tsolkas told Truthout. “So why aren’t these things referenced in these [environmental] analyses? To me, it’s one of the most kind of overt of oversights.”

The EPA’s interagency working group on environmental justice lays out guidelines for the rest of the federal government. Last year, the agency released a draft framework of its environmental justice agenda that will cover the next five years, known as its EJ 2020 Action Agenda. The EPA is taking public comments on its draft framework until July 7 of this year.

“The EPA has greatly appreciated the input of all our stakeholders as we have worked to develop our EJ 2020 Action Agenda, which is currently out for public comment in final draft form. [The] EPA looks forward to continued engagement with the Prison Ecology Project and others working to guarantee basic indoor environmental and public health standards are met for all prison populations,” an EPA spokesperson said in a statement released to Truthout. “We are reviewing their comments on the final draft of the EJ 2020 Action Agenda to ensure their comments are thoroughly considered, as we work to finalize the strategy.”

Activists are skeptical that the EPA is doing everything it can to address this issue, but they remain hopeful that good-faith efforts are underway.

“[The EPA] made a lot of excuses for what they can’t do,” Tsolkas told Truthout. “I honestly believe there were some good people in that room. They were helpful in setting that meeting up. They’ve been receptive to our input. They haven’t established a sort of adversarial relationship as other government agencies, like the BOP, have done.”

According to Tsolkas and the Defense Center, the BOP has never considered its prisoners as populations that fall under the federal environmental justice standards for assessing environmental impacts at new prisons.

“The Bureau is complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Bureau considers the health and safety of its staff and inmates to be a very important consideration when planning to build a prison and when operating it,” a BOP spokesperson said in a statement released to Truthout, adding that its site selection process, which is governed by NEPA, takes into account the environmental conditions at alternative sites.

But enforcement actions taken by the EPA at federal prisons in Region III between 1999 and 2011 revealed improper disposal of hazardous waste and violations of air and water standards caused by overcrowding. Furthermore, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General cited several violations of environmental, health and safety regulations, and BOP policies related to industrial operations at its federal prisons.

The Defense Center has highlighted several cases nationwide in which prisoners’ drinking water has been contaminated. In federal prisons in California and Texas, elevated levels of arsenic were found in the water supply. In 2007, the Defense Center’s magazine, Prison Legal News, found dozens of prisons in 17 states had persistent issues related to sewage and sanitation problems, including several cases in which prisons dumped or spilled sewage into local waterways.

Additionally, Truthout’s prior review of the BOP’s environmental analysis of the Letcher County prison, required under federal law, showed the BOP offers only two alternatives to the mountaintop-removal site it selected: a separate strip mining site or not building the prison in Letcher County at all. Activists in Kentucky and elsewhere say the Bureau should meaningfully consider the latter option if it’s serious about environmental justice.

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