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Report Highlights Health Concerns Related to Coal Ash Dump at Pennsylvania Prison

A preliminary report by two human rights organizations concluded that a toxic fly ash dump which surrounds State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette in Pennsylvania may be causing cancer and other serious health ailments to both prisoners and staff at the facility. While more study is needed to empirically prove the connection between pollution from the ash dump and illnesses at the prison, the report indicated there was a strong causal relationship.

SCI Fayette opened in 2003 at a cost of about $119 million; it sits on 237 acres and houses just over 2,000 prisoners. The facility was built on top of a former coal mine and sits adjacent to a 506-acre coal ash dump owned and operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting (MCC).

The dump receives ash waste from coal-fired power plants throughout the region. Before it became a fly ash dump, the site was one of the world’s largest coal preparation plants, which left over 40 million tons of coal waste. MCC recently renewed its permit to dump 416,000 tons of coal ash per year at the site.

Coal ash contains mercury, lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, cadmium and thallium. Those chemicals can cause or contribute to many serious health problems. “In short, coal ash toxins have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality,” according to a 2010 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The SCI Fayette report was released on September 2, 2014 by the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and Human Rights Coalition (HRC). The groups sent surveys to prisoners and received 75 responses that described “symptoms and illnesses that did not emerge until they arrived at SCI Fayette.”

More than 81% of the survey respondents reported respiratory, throat and sinus conditions; 69% reported gastrointestinal problems; 59% reported rashes, hives, cysts and abscesses; 12% reported thyroid problems. Between January 2010 and December 2013, eleven prisoners at SCI Fayette died of cancer, another six reported a cancer diagnosis and eight had undiagnosed tumors and lumps.

The facility’s 600 employees also have been affected. “We are aware of some officers from SCI Fayette who are suffering from illness,” said Dave La Torre, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. Union president Jason Bloom called the joint ALC and HRC report “alarming,” citing cases of breast, kidney and thyroid cancer among prison employees.

Further, the fly ash dump is apparently causing health problems for residents of one section of La Belle, a community on the other side of the site. “Residents say there are nine cases of cancer in the 18 houses,” stated a 2010 news article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Prisoners’ requests for medical treatment from the private medical contractor at SCI Fayette “are often dismissed,” the report said. Those with cancer “were denied evaluation until the cancer was life-threatening.”

The report further noted that prisoners consistently cite visible signs of pollution in and around the facility: “black clouds of debris blowing off the dump site; black dust collecting in the prison yard, on window sills, and on freshly fallen snow; black and gray dust building around the vents inside prison cells.”

In conclusion, the report urged prisoners housed at SCI Fayette and their families to report health symptoms to ALC and HRC. It also encouraged the prison’s surrounding communities, environmental organizations and legal agencies to engage in principled and strategic cooperation to protect prisoners at the facility.

“Health is a human right,” the report said, “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 Pennsylvania DOC released a statement on December 31, 2014, saying it had tested the water supply at the facility and reviewed prisoners’ medical records and cancer rates. “Our review found no scientific data to support claims of any unsafe environmental conditions or any related medical issues to exist at SCI Fayette,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

“What they looked at was how does SCI Fayette compare to other prisons, when our prisoners at SCI Fayette are being made sick by exposure to coal ash, specifically in the form of air pollution,” countered HRC spokesman Ben Fiorillo. “We have a lot of anecdotal evidence from prisoners and guards that a black dust that may be coal ash collects on the vents inside, and they didn’t address that issue.”

The 28-page joint HRC and ALC report, “No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette,” is available on PLN’s website. The organizations recently sent follow-up surveys to all 2,000 prisoners at the facility, seeking additional information about health-related problems.




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