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Hazardous Waste Found in WI Prison

Since 1993 the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has been the subject of several scathing investigations by that state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The investigations have made several alarming discoveries, concluding that the DOC is failing to keep track of and properly dispose of hazardous industrial and agricultural waste.

An unlicensed dump at the Oregon prison farm, south of Madison, was discovered in the aftermath of a June, 1993, tornado that swept through the area. When DNR staff investigated they discovered pesticides, paint, tires, barrels containing unidentified liquid waste, empty fuel oil tanks and other refuse, according to Mike Degan, DNR hazardous waste unit leader for that district. The DOC, when questioned about the dump, said they were not aware of the dump site and blamed it on prisoners. [See: Dec. 1993, PLN.] In July, 1993, Dodge County Court Judge Joseph Schultz ordered the DOC and Badger State Industries (the DOC run industrial company) to write an environmental clean up plan because the prison at Waupun had earlier been found in violation of state hazardous waste storage and disposal laws. The court said the plan was needed "to avoid violations of environmental laws" and gave the DOC a December 31, 1993, deadline by which to comply. The DOC ignored the deadline. David Whitcomb, chief legal counsel for the DOC, stated that no one had been assigned to do the job. He claimed a breakdown in communications, but this time did not blame it on prisoners.

The environmental problems at Waupun are related to improperly stored and disposed of chemical solvents, used at the prison's license plate, furniture and sign production facilities, which have contaminated the ground water beneath the prison. Since 1990 the DOC has spent $309,280 to remove six leaking hazardous waste storage tanks and study the extent of ground water contamination at the prison.

Dave Edwards, a DNR hazardous waste specialist, said that chemical waste leaking from the prison may be responsible for contaminating Waupun's municipal wells. He said that municipal wells could still be used for drinking because the solvent concentrations are very low. However, he said that at the Waupun prison, solvent levels in monitoring wells far exceed safe levels. The DNR's concern doesn't appear to be that prisoners at Waupun have safe drinking water but only to avoid further contamination of the municipal wells.

Judge Schultz ordered the DOC to determine whether there is hazardous waste contamination at any of its other 31 prisons, farms and smaller facilities. Each facility was asked to complete a questionnaire detailing what it did with its hazardous waste. Degan and other DNR investigators have expressed doubts about the DOC's ability to police itself, based on its past performance.

At least one Waupun prisoner, Vances Smith, has filed suit over the prison's water contamination due to the large numbers of prisoners becoming ill or showing other symptoms of chemical poisoning. Despite newspaper articles relating the above facts, the prison official defendants denied that anything was wrong with the prison's water supply. (They did admit that the prison's cellways were lined with asbestos but claimed it was in good repair and did not pose a health hazard. Smith notes that the only reason he became aware of the asbestos was because he could see it hanging off the pipes.) In discovery Smith learned that the DNR had sued the DOC over the illegal dumping. He obtained a copy of a stipulation agreement between the DNR and the DOC whereby the DOC admitted the facts of the complain; agreed to pay $55,000 and agreed to clean up the waste and ground water. The stipulated agreement lists the various chemical solvents the water is contaminated with and the amounts in which the chemicals are present. Smith's litigation is still in court.

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