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Persistent, Ongoing Environmental Violations at Washington’s Walla Walla Prison

Persistent, Ongoing Environmental Violations at Washington’s Walla Walla Prison

by Panagioti Tsolkas

Walla Walla State Penitentiary (WSP) in Washington State has a long history of contaminating the surrounding land, water and neighboring communities. Recent reports obtained this year from a public records request submitted by Prison Legal News to the Department of Ecology (DOE) indicate that WSP’s chronic pollution problems are still ongoing.

PLN has reported on the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) ignoring air and water pollution violations for more than two decades, starting in August 1990 when the DOE inspected and cited WSP for eight “dangerous waste violations.” [See: PLN, July 2004, p.28]. Examples of other violations since that time include the following:

• In March 1992, DOE notified WSP that it had received an anonymous complaint detailing improper disposal of toxic waste into the storm drain and a major spill of diesel fuel during the removal of a 1,000-gallon underground storage tank. A DOE site inspection also revealed over a dozen livestock carcasses dumped next to a pond and wetlands.

• In October 1993, DOE found highly toxic tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene in both air and water samples taken downgradient from WSP’s former landfill, affecting 17 groundwater wells that served more than 10,800 local residents.

•DOE again conducted a compliance inspection at WSP in November 1994. The report noted the prison was not in compliance with a long list of administrative regulations related to the generation of hazardous waste in large quantities.

• In May 1995, WSP’s safety coordinator stipulated to a DOE consent order in which the facility agreed to cease and desist from failing to keep waste containers closed, failing to label them and dumping chemicals into the drain.

• The DOE stated that based on data collected during an assessment from April to June 1995, “WSP was given a ranking of ‘3’ on August 22, 1995 (A ‘1’ represents the highest relative risk, and a ‘5’ is the lowest). The ‘3’ ranking is based on the potential for human exposure through the groundwater pathway. Due to this ranking, the WSP was placed on the Hazardous Sites List.”

• An October 2000 DOE report concluded that WSP was a “potential source” of volatile organic compound (VOC) pollution – specifically, the known carcinogens tetrachloroethene, trichloroethylene, trichlorofluoromethane and chloroform – at the Sudbury Road Landfill Site in the City of Walla Walla, due to the prison’s “historical operations.”

• In March 2001, DOE demanded that WSP come into compliance in nine specified areas related to almost 50 continuing violations at the prison that included improperly stored paint waste, an open caustic dip tank, abandoned photochemical containers, numerous unlabeled solvent drums and abandoned cartons of ammonium hydroxide.

• A new battlefront opened in July 2002 when a City of Walla Walla utility engineer contacted DOE to complain about wildly excessive heavy metal discharges from WSP into city sewers. Lead discharges at the prison averaged three times the permitted level; zinc discharges (from the auto shop) averaged four times the permitted level; copper (from the metal plant) averaged 40 times the permitted level; and mercury (from WSP’s hospital) was 100 times the permitted level.

• In a series of inspections throughout 2002, effluent from the prison that contained heavy metals continued to increase. In addition, an 85-pound CFC leak occurred from broken freezers at WSP.

• In 2003, the Washington DOC opted to appeal penalties stemming from 12 years of violations of Dangerous Waste Regulations, including nine in 1990, eight in 1994, nine in 2001 and nine in 2002. Worse, the violations in 2002 were all “recidivist” violations from prior inspections. While the case eventually settled under undisclosed terms, it appears the DOC opted to pay fines rather than fix the problems. As a result, violations have continued unabated.

PLN’s public records request to the DOE revealed an ongoing laundry list of violations related to pollution and failure to follow monitoring schedules. From 2009 to 2014 alone, WSP failed to properly file required Discharge Monitoring Reports an astounding 580 times.

Interspersed throughout the reports over that five-year period is confirmation of ongoing pollution at WSP. The reports cite 18 incidents of Numeric Effluent Violations, primarily from copper, zinc and mercury. Additional incidents include “flow” violations, meaning the facility exceeded its maximum allowable quantity of wastewater discharge. For example:

• In May 2010, WSP exceeded its daily maximum limit of sewage and wastewater effluent, which is 654,000 gallons, by releasing over 758,000 gallons in a single day. The prison exceeded the daily maximum again in September 2010.

• WSP exceeded the maximum allowable levels of zinc and copper in October 2010, then copper again in December 2010 and January, February, March and April 2011. In September 2012, the facility exceeded allowable mercury and copper levels.

• In June and October 2014, WSP exceeded the allowable average monthly flow of sewage and wastewater discharge.

So what is the DOE doing to stop these persistent environmental violations at WSP that have spanned over twenty years? Apparently nothing. And what are Washington prison officials doing? Apparently the same.


Panagioti Tsolkas is the director of the Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Ecology Project (


Sources: WA DOE Discharge Monitoring Reports for WSP, 2009-2014; WA DOE WSP Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study Final Work Plan (June 2009, updated Feb. 2010)


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