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Poison Prison: Is Toxic Dust Sickening Inmates Locked up in Coal Country?

Poison Prison

Is toxic dust sickening inmates locked up in coal country?

By Eric Markowitz

As the sun set over western Pennsylvania, Marcus Santos, inmate #JL7126, sat alone in a drab prison hospital, his eyes closed, wondering if he was about to die. It was Aug. 26, 2012.

At 5 p.m. that evening, Santos trudged over to medical. He felt his throat closing, cutting off oxygen to his lungs. It scared him. Santos never had asthma or allergies, but ever since he’d arrived at Fayette State Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in LaBelle, Pennsylvania, the heart of coal country, he’d begun experiencing signs that something was seriously wrong.

First, it was a nosebleed. Then, headaches. Within six months, his symptoms included severe welts and swelling all over his body. There were skin rashes and hives covering his armpits, his sides and the back of his neck. His feet, genitals and even his eyeballs had swelled at some point.

When Santos arrived at the prison medical unit that August summer evening, the nurse on duty took his blood pressure. It was 166 over 102, a normal reading. The nurse then took his temperature, which was 98.8 degrees. Also normal. The nurse then asked Santos to open his mouth so he could examine his throat. “Lungs clear,” he wrote in his notes. “Heart rate and rhythm normal.” Santos sighed.

For weeks, no one seemed to know, or was willing to admit, what was wrong with him. He began to feel desperate.

The 41-year-old Santos entered Fayette on Feb. 12, 2012, as a healthy man, both physically and mentally. He was serving a five-to-10-year sentence for selling cocaine in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He stood 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 164 pounds. The only medication he ever took was a daily dose of Lisinopril, meant to curb his high blood pressure. He prided himself on his body, his muscles.

But six months into his sentence at Fayette, Santos had become a different man. He was frail and in near-constant pain. Some nights, he’d stay up until 5 a.m., scrubbing his mattress with bleach, thinking bed bugs were biting at his skin. He didn’t sleep long enough to get nightmares. It was agony. Santos’ cellmate, nicknamed D-block, kindly offered Santos the bottom bunk so that he could get up more easily in the middle of the night.

Santos soon became a fixture in the prison’s infirmary, where he presented his rashes, skin welts and swollen eyeballs to the medical staff. One of the prison’s doctors, Michael Herbik, suggested to Santos his symptoms might be caused by an allergic reaction to something, perhaps pollen, in the air.

LaBelle is a rural town in the southwest foothills of Pennsylvania in Fayette County, tucked into the border of West Virginia and Ohio. The prison sits on the banks of the Monongahela River, a slithering tributary that barges use to ship coal to steel mills in Pittsburgh. Allergies are common in the area, but Santos began to fear something far more sinister.

The prison at Fayette sits adjacent to a massive coal ash dump site. For years, local LaBelle residents, and more recently prison guards at Fayette, have complained that the site has been making them sick. In the winter, Santos had noticed something odd: a layer of black dust that settled on the white snow. And so he began to wonder. Was coal ash in the air making him sick?

The doctors attacked his symptoms with a battery of allergy medications like Benadryl and Singulair. None of them worked. Later, the doctors would send him to an allergist, Dr. David Skoner, who ran a variety of allergy tests. Nothing registered.

At 5:36 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2012, the evening he thought he might die, Santos sat alone in the prison hospital and was given two tablets of Tums. Santos recalls the nurse telling him, “If you make it, you make it.” (The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections declined to comment for this story, but medical records confirm Santos was administered only Tums that evening.)

“If you make it, you make it,” Santos repeated to himself in his head, disgusted. He sat alone in his cell, thinking of his 12-year-old son, counting the seconds to see if he was going to live or die. Seconds turned to minutes. Minutes turned to hours.

Slowly, but surely, the swelling went down. Oxygen passed through his lungs. Santos could breathe.

“I’ve been shot at, I’ve been cut,” Santos told me recently. “I’m not no little preppie good guy. I’ve had my time on the streets. But when your body is turning against you because there’s something that’s out of your control, and you can’t do anything about it, it changes you.”

Santos didn’t know it then, but what started as a personal illness would later morph into a contentious battle between lawyers, prison guards, environmentalists and state officials over the future of the 2,000-person prison at Fayette. 

When coal is extracted from the earth, it needs to be washed and processed at a preparation plant. Until the mid-1990s, LaBelle, now home to the prison at Fayette, operated one of the largest coal preparation plants in the world. Nearby coal mines would send their coal to LaBelle, which would wash the coal, process it and ship it back out. Years of washing coal creates tons of waste, and by the mid-'90s, when its owners abandoned the site, LaBelle was home to a massive pile of this "slurry." 

Untended piles of coal waste can pollute the local environment, so in 1996, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, along with a local company, Matt Canestrale Contracting, began dumping coal ash onto the site. In theory, this process--known as coal ash reclamation--should stabilize the local ecosystem. 

However, environmentalists are notably more wary about this idea.  

“Some of the substances in coal ash are the most toxic elements on the planet,” says Barbara Gottlieb, the environment and health director at Physicians for Social Responsibility. In 2010, Gottlieb wrote a report on the effects of exposure to coal ash. “In short, coal ash toxics have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality,” her report concluded.

Matt Canestrale Contracting operates the coal ash dump site in LaBelle, Pennsylvania.

Gottlieb says dumping coal ash can also cause more harm than good. For instance, if the impoundment isn’t properly lined with a clay and plastic tarp, she says, the coal ash can leak into the local streams, affecting local wildlife and potentially the area’s drinking water. But perhaps more importantly, because the ash can be fine and powdery, it can blow off from trucks or barges if they’re not covered properly. This is called “fugitive dust,” and it’s extremely dangerous. 

Gottlieb says there are a number of ways in which people can get sick from fugitive dust. The most obvious is through inhalation of the air. But the dust itself can also be absorbed directly into human skin, causing a variety of skin cancers, ulcers, hives or irritations. 

Recently, with Santos’ consent, I told Gottlieb about his medical history and shared some of his documents I had received. After reviewing the documents, Gottlieb called me. She first cautioned that it’s extremely difficult to prove causality in these types of situations. 

"But there certainly could be a link," she said. Given his symptoms, "There are a number of contaminants in coal ash that are concerning."

Fayette is not the only prison built next to a potentially toxic dump site. In fact, it’s something of a trend. Paul Wright, the director of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), says building prisons near dump sites has happened for the last 15 years, if not longer, "even though the media has ignored it." Wright, working with Prison Ecology, a project that grew out of the HRDC, is currently fighting the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which is planning to build a new federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky, right on top of a former coal mine.

Wright says there's a reason former coal towns welcome prisons: money. The declining coal industry has left scores of rural, economically impoverished towns. That decline, coupled with the fact that the United States was opening a new prison every 15 days throughout the '90s, created a toxic mix. 

Affluent towns almost never allow prisons to be built near residents. But coal towns like LaBelle, where the per capita income is $18,797, are more open to the idea. 

“If you’re a glass is half-full kind of person, you’d say they’re repurposing the abandoned coal mine” and using it to create jobs, says Wright. “And if you're a glass is half-empty kind of person, you'd say it's pretty unconscionable that you’re putting people in cages at gunpoint and putting them in toxic waste sites.”

On my recent visit to LaBelle, I met with Jim and Candy Harvey, who live in the area. We sat on a wooden bench in front of the local firehouse, overlooking an abandoned baseball field. The Harveys recently moved out of LaBelle to another small town up the Monongahela River, but their children and three grandchildren live in their old home in the center of town.

Candy’s grandchildren, she said, are always getting sick. “I call them Typhoid Mary and Fred," she said, looking wistfully over the abandoned field. “They’re sick all the time.” Jim says that in the summer months he’d see a black film settle on the surface of their above-ground pool.

The couple say residents have complained for years about pollution in the area, but nothing has happened. “People feel that it’s too daunting,” Jim says. “How can we little people get going on this?”

On June 26, 2013, the Citizens Coal Council, a coal industry watchdog, filed a lawsuit against Matt Canestrale Contracting (MCC), the company that owns and manages the coal ash dump site. The lawsuit alleges that both the air and water had become polluted in LaBelle, and that MCC was liable because of the company’s “failure to cover trucks hauling coal ash waste,” which created fugitive dust in the area. It also noted that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had issued notices of violation to MCC nine times in the period from 1999 to 2012.

One violation, which came after the lawsuit was filed, resulted from complaints from a notable source: a prison guard at Fayette.

On Oct. 21, 2013, Eric Garland, who works as a corrections officer at Fayette, was planting apple trees in his yard when he looked across the river and saw trucks dumping what looked like coal ash on the MCC property. He grabbed his tripod, a digital camera and a hunting scope, and recorded the video and sent it to the DEP. (Matt Canestrale Contracting has claimed the dust was actually topsoil, not coal ash.)

A video obtained by International Business Times revealing dust blowing from the MCC property. 

Garland began working at Fayette in 2004. In 2009, he says, he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. He started researching potential causes and believes the coal ash in the area might be a factor. Garland says that he’s complained to local officials, a state representative, and members of the DEP, but he says he’s been stonewalled the whole way. “I felt they were brushing me off,” he says. “They told me there were beneficial uses of coal ash. They denied everything.”

The Citizens Coal Council lawsuit does not make any claims about health effects, which are notoriously difficult to prove based on pollution in the area. But it does challenge the notion that dumping coal ash in the mine was achieving its intended purpose. “Adding the coal ash was making it worse,” says Richard Webster, the attorney representing Citizens Coal Council. In fact, inspectors documented that in one area of the site, the ash material had a “consistency ‘like toothpaste,’” which would imply a serious problem.

According to the complaint, water samples taken at the site in 2012 “'revealed potentially harmful levels' of antimony (0.26 mg/L); boron (4.31 mg/L); and lead (0.21 mg/L), all of which exceeded government standards.”

Webster says the case is in settlement discussions, and depending on the outcome of those discussions, it may result in injunctive actions against MCC that would force the company to clean up the site. While the suit mentions that 50 families live in the LaBelle area, it does not once mention that LaBelle is also home to a prison with more than 2,000 inmates, which happens to be situated closer to the dump site than the majority of the homes in the town.

“One of the problems is that we don't have any good data on the prisoners' health,” says Webster. “As environmental lawyers, the reality is that we don't want the prisoners to be subject to any pollution. But what would help us along is that if there's a good study that shows there's a direct correlation [between coal ash and the sicknesses]."

William Gorton III, the attorney representing Matt Canestrale Contracting, which manages the dump site, told me recently that there’s that “there’s been no evidence whatsoever about the health issues related to the people in LaBelle.” 

Jim and Candy Harvey don’t buy it. They believe that everyone in the area is affected, including residents, inmates and prison guards. In April 2015, the couple created an organization called Helping Organize to Protect our Environment, or HOPE, and invited residents to attend a documentary screening about coal ash. They’re even in the process of sending out health surveys to town residents and plan to share the results with government health officials.

“If you get a good survey,” Jim says, “then it is an indicator.”

On April 12, 2013, Marcus Santos was sitting in the prison common room, idly flipping through the channels on television.

A program came on that caught his attention. It was the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the channel was airing a news segment about coal ash in LaBelle, Pennsylvania, the exact site where Fayette was built. One resident interviewed, Sonny Markish, told the interviewer that he and his wife had battled cancer. He showed the side of his home, blanketed in a black dust, which he claimed tested positive for coal ash. Another couple interviewed, Rudy and Yma Smith, were both on kidney dialysis.

After watching the segment, Santos decided to write a few letters to people who might be able to help. He sent one to the Human Rights Coalition (HRC), an advocacy group that fights for civil rights for prisoners. In the letter, Santos described his symptoms, the proximity of the prison’s location to the coal ash dump and how many of his fellow inmates, as well as local LaBelle residents and prison guards, seemed to be getting sick.

“I understand that this letter may make me sound a bit “out-there,” Santos wrote on a letter dated April 15, 2013. “But even a brief investigation will truly show what is going on in this area. And that this can NO LONGER be ignored or covered up.”

Santos didn’t know it at the time, but that letter would trigger a series of events that would ultimately lead to a massive health survey of the prison, a survey that is still going on to this day.

Santos stuck the letter in the mail. The Human Rights Coalition receives dozens of letters every month, and it’s staffed by mostly volunteers. Ben Fiorillo, a 26-year-old intern with the group, received the letter, and shared it with Dustin McDaniel, a young civil rights attorney in Pittsburgh who runs the Abolitionist Law Center. 

McDaniel, who had spent the last couple of years working to free Russell Maroon Shoatz, a former Black Panther serving 22 years in solitary confinement, took the lead. He, along with two other organizations, sent out 160 surveys to inmates at Fayette, and received 75 responses. McDaniel tabulated the responses, which they published online in September 2014.

The investigation revealed that 81 percent of the responding prisoners at Fayette reported respiratory, throat and sinus conditions, 68 percent experienced gastrointestinal problems and 52 percent reported adverse skin conditions, including painful rashes, hives, cysts and abscesses. Finally, 12 percent reported being diagnosed with thyroid disorder.

Though the results were anecdotal, they seemed to confirm McDaniel's fears. “We know there’s a problem,” McDaniel told me recently. Since September 2014, McDaniel has been filing dozens of right-to-know requests with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections about air quality in the prison. One of them shows that particulate matter in the prison air was over safe standards on one day in 2010.

If he can prove that there is, in fact, a problem with the air quality in LaBelle, McDaniel believes that keeping prisoners there is cruel and unusual punishment. “Health is a human right,” McDaniel wrote in his initial report, “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.”

Dustin McDaniel

McDaniel’s report triggered the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) to launch its own study at Fayette, looking into the prisoner’s claims. On New Year’s Eve, the DOC published its 11-page report. The DOC report looked exclusively at cancer rates within the prison.

“Based on the types of cancer observed and the rates, there isn't an indication the environment contributes to the risk, and there are no environmental data demonstrating human exposures to significant levels of carcinogens that could increase the cancer risk,” the report concluded.

Recently, I emailed the DOC report to Barbara Gottlieb, the director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

“Looking at the study that was conducted, it’s piecemeal and very difficult to assess,” she told me. “I don’t understand why they studied only cancer. It’s entirely too fragmentary.”

She added, “It certainly sounds like much more needs to be done in terms of responding to the health needs of the prisoners ... as I said before, the self reports of symptoms are worrisome. They could, on the face of the available evidence, be associated to exposure to very dangerous toxic substances. The prison needs to know that.”

At 1 p.m. on Feb. 2, 2013, Santos, wearing a red jumpsuit and shackles on his hands and legs, entered the office of Dr. David Skoner, an allergist at Allegheny Health Network, a hospital outside Pittsburgh, 40 miles north of the prison.

This was their second meeting. Skoner had previously seen Santos on Nov. 27, six weeks earlier. At that appointment, Skoner pricked Santos’ forearms repeatedly, took 13 vials of blood, and ran several tests to determine allergies. Skoner also recommended that Santos start taking Claritin, avoid soy and limit exposure to dust mites in the meantime.

In the following weeks, the allergy tests came back negative, and by the time Santos was back in his office on Feb. 2, Skoner was extremely concerned. The symptoms persisted, and he feared Santos’ conditions might get worse over time.

I spoke with Skoner recently on the phone. He recalled Santos’ symptoms, the hives, the throat swelling, and said they presented a “severe and new life-threatening problem that was unexplainable.”

“It was very unique to this facility with his history,” Skoner says. “He didn't have this as a child. I figured there had to be some new dietary or environmental thing that was triggering it. But there was nothing new in his diet. It was the same all the time. So the environment had to have changed.”

After almost exactly one year in Fayette, Santos was one step closer to getting moved to another facility. On Santos’ medical form, Skoner made his recommendation:

“Cannot rule out triggering by unidentifiable water/air exposure in prison environment. Only way to prove is trial avoidance. I recommend three months' trial in another institution to further investigate causality.”

Finally, after filing grievances, sending letters and hoping Santos could be moved, Skoner submitted the paperwork, and Santos was transferred to a state prison in Smithfield, Pennsylvania, about three hours northeast of LaBelle.

When I spoke with Skoner, I asked him if he knew much about the LaBelle area. He did not. I briefly explained to him that the prison was located near a coal ash site, and that coal ash contains high levels of toxic materials, including arsenic. I then asked Skoner if he thought toxic exposure to arsenic in the air could be a cause of Santos’ medical symptoms.

“It’s very possible,” he said. “If there was arsenic in the air, then it’s very possible that contact with the skin could have caused some of those symptoms.” I then told him about McDaniel’s investigation, and the fact that many inmates were reporting very similar, troubling symptoms in their self-reported surveys.

“I think more should be done,” he said. “You’ve got signals like this.”

Before we hung up, Skoner asked me one last question.

“Did he get better upon a transfer?" 

Sitting in his home office under a portrait of Maximilien Robespierre, the noted French revolutionary, McDaniel, the 35-year-old lawyer with the Abolitionist Law Center, gets visibly agitated when I bring up the DOC medical report, a report he calls "their bulls--- investigation."

"Their initial reaction was to manage it as a press relation issue," he says. "It’s part of their attempt to defend themselves.  They say, 'Well, we investigated it and there was nothing there.'"

McDaniel grimaces when talking about the DOC. “People act as if there aren’t 2,000 people living next to this thing,” he says.  “And when it’s raised, it’s like, “Oh, well they’re just prisoners. They shouldn’t have broken the law.’ But regardless of whether they’ve broken the law or not, this isn’t right.”

During his investigation, McDaniel set out to understand why a prison would be built near a dump site in the first place.  According to county records, Matt Canestrale Contracting, which was incorporated in 1975 by Matt Canestrale, first bought the entire 1,327-acre plot of land in 1996. The dump site was later restricted to a 506-acre portion of the land. In 2000, Canestrale sold 237 acres back to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for $575,000.

Around the same time, the Pennsylvania government was closing an inner-city prison in Pittsburgh, and the DOC was looking for real estate to build their next facility. Essentially, the DOC needed land, and LaBelle was cheap, poor and needed the jobs.

In 2003, when Fayette opened, local news articles seemed hopeful the prison would bring the economically depressed area much-needed work. “Fayette residents hope prison holds promise of better future,” read one local headline. The article promised 700 new jobs for area residents. It did not mention the prison's proximity to the coal ash dump site.

“If you’re Matt Canestrale, you get to sell a bunch of land that you’re not really using for this coal-dumping stuff,” says McDaniel. “If you’re the prison, you get cheap land.”

McDaniel has doubled down on his investigation at the prison. Since February 2015, he has sent every single inmate a health survey in Fayette. So far, he’s received about 500 responses. He plans to hire a graduate student, ”someone who’s versatile in statistics,” to go through the findings and release a follow-up report this summer.

This is not easy work. Some inmates are scared of retribution if they participate. McDaniel says that at least five or six inmates have sent surveys to him indirectly, through relatives, just so prison officials don't see that they're corresponding directly with McDaniel.

Marcus Santos is dressed in black jeans, a gray Henley and a black baseball hat. He has a pencil-thin chinstrap beard that seems to match the contours of his smile. “You hungry?” Santos asks me. We’re in Above Da Rim, a car shop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

We hop in his car and drive over to his favorite Mexican restaurant, where he orders us both steak burritos.

On the day of his transfer out of the Fayette prison, Santos says he arrived in his new cell and began organizing his things. He was thirsty, but when he looked over at the sink, he recalled the heartburn he’d get from the Fayette prison water. But this was Smithfield, and inmates assured him the water was fine.

Santos is an effusive guy, a good storyteller. Crouching over his burrito, he mimics drinking one cup of water. Then another. And one more.  Santos paused and looked me in the eye. He burst out laughing. 

“Man!” he said. “I almost drowned myself in that water. It was so good. It felt so good.”

Santos says that within six months at Smithfield, his symptoms started going away. Within a year, he says, he was back at "95 percent." He’s now at full health. In March 2015, Santos was granted parole. He’s now adjusting to life outside the prison, spending time with his son and family, and figuring out how to make phone calls on his new Samsung smartphone. "Phones got big again, man," he says, a grin plastered on his face. He even went on a date recently.  

Santos keeps in touch with McDaniel from time to time. He’s happy that the lawyer is investigating the prison and he’s eagerly awaiting the results of the new survey. He knows the stakes are high. If the results indicate that prisoners at Fayette are getting sick at abnormally high rates, the Department of Corrections might be forced into launching a full epidemiological study of inmate’s health at the prison. And if they find conclusive evidence that inmates are getting sick from coal ash in the area, they may be forced to shut down the prison altogether.

Santos didn’t want to talk about his role as a catalyst in this investigation. He doesn’t even really take credit for it. Mostly, he just wanted to hear about Skoner, the physician who got him out.

Despite Santos' months of agony, filing grievances, sending letters, documenting his symptoms and fighting for his life, it was Skoner who ultimately convinced the prison officials to transfer him.

“If it wasn’t for Dr. Skoner, I know I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you,” Santos says. “There’s no way around it. I owe my life to that man. One day I gotta reach out to that man and tell him thank you. Because he did it. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here."


This article was produced by Hana Sender and originally published by the International Business Times. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.


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