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HRDC and 93 Organizations Ask EPA to Consider Prisoners in Environmental Justice Plan

HRDC and 93 Organizations Ask EPA to Consider Prisoners in Environmental Justice Plan

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), PLN’s parent non-profit organization, submitted a public comment to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on July 14, 2015 to provide input on the agency’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda Framework, highlighting the lack of consideration for environmental justice among the millions of prisoners in the United States.

The comment was co-signed by 93 social justice, environmental and prisoners’ rights organizations from across the country. Additional groups such as the Sierra Club (the largest membership-based environmental organization in the U.S.) and the EJ Forum (a coalition of 42 environmental organizations) submitted their own remarks to the EPA that included statements of support for HRDC’s comment.

The EJ 2020 Action Agenda Framework is designed to help the EPA “advance environmental justice through its programs, policies and activities” by “making a visible difference in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities” that are vulnerable to environmental issues such as air and water pollution.

HRDC argued that the EPA should take prisoners into consideration with respect to environmental justice and impacts on minority and low-income populations to the same extent as non-prisoners, because prisoners are especially vulnerable to adverse environmental impacts.

“It’s encouraging to see the EPA attempting to increase the effectiveness of protecting vulnerable communities that have been overburdened by industrial pollution, but a significant component is missing when impacts on millions of prisoners and their families are ignored,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, who coordinates HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project.

HRDC’s comment elaborated on examples nationwide which illustrate a clear need to protect prisoners as a population that faces extreme environmental justice impacts. For example, prisons and jails built on or near landfills, toxic waste dumps, Superfund cleanup sites and coal mining sites, or that are vulnerable to natural disasters such as flooding and environmental hazards like contaminated water. Among other examples, HRDC specifically cited:

• The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, which has become notorious for its location on a toxic waste landfill, where lawsuits have been filed against the facility by employees who became ill due to the environmental conditions. As a result of the landfill, there have been frequent methane gas explosions on Rikers Island.

• The State Correctional Institution-Fayette in Pennsylvania, which was built on a former coal mine and sits adjacent to a 506-acre coal ash dump. Prisoners exposed to coal ash dust have reported numerous health-related problems. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.42].

• Thirteen state and federal prisons near Cañon City, Colorado, including the federal Florence ADX supermax, which are located in an area known for longstanding water quality problems related to the mining and processing of uranium. [See: PLN, Sept. 1992, p.1]. Liquid waste laced with radioactive material and heavy metals was discharged into 11 unlined ponds from 1958-1978. Those were replaced in 1982 with two lined impoundments, and after well tests in Cañon City showed contamination, the uranium mill site was put on a national list for Superfund cleanups.

• Arsenic in Texas and California water supplies near prisons, including elevated levels of arsenic in the water supply for the Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota, Texas. [See: PLN, Sept. 2015, p.12].

• The Victorville Federal Correctional Complex in California, which was built on the site of one of the Weapons Storage Areas for the former George Air Force Base in California, now a military Superfund cleanup site.

• The Northwest Detention Center near Tacoma, Washington, a privately-operated facility designed to house immigrant detainees, which is adjacent to a Superfund site known as Project Area #3 of the Tacoma Tar Pits. The location is also in a designated volcanic hazard zone.

According to the comment submitted by HRDC, there is overwhelming evidence that the population of people in prison represents one of the most vulnerable and uniquely-overburdened demographics in our nation. The comment notes that prison populations are almost entirely low-income and that black, Hispanic/Latino and Native Americans are consistently overrepresented in every state prison system.

Environmental permits which fail to meet the environmental justice standards set in place 20 years ago may violate the Civil Rights Act. Title VI of the Act explicitly prohibits discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds; if an agency is found in violation of Title VI, it may lose federal funding. HRDC argued that the prison sector should not be an exception with respect to environmental justice standards.

“Those unfamiliar with the conditions in America’s prisons may balk at our allegations but the EPA cannot claim to be among the uninformed,” Tsolkas stated.

On February 5, 2015, Tsolkas conducted an interview with an EPA representative from Region III, who explicitly stated that environmental justice guidelines have not been applied to prisoners for the purpose of permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act because the EPA uses data that fails to take prisoner populations into account.

EPA Region III, which encompasses the Mid-Atlantic, conducted an initiative in which numerous prison inspections by the agency resulted in enforcement actions between 1999 and 2011, ranging from issues surrounding the disposal of hazardous waste to violations of air and water standards, primarily due to prison overcrowding. The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General has also cited various violations of health, safety and environmental laws, regulations and Bureau of Prisons policies related to industrial operations in federal prisons – including UNICOR electronics recycling programs. [See: PLN, Oct. 2011, p.44].

Yet the EPA has never cited the health and safety of prisoners exposed to such environmental conditions as a factor in prison inspections or in the permitting of new facilities. HRDC filed an Environmental Impact Statement comment with the Bureau of Prisons in March 2015, objecting to the siting of a proposed federal prison in a coal mining area in Letcher County, Kentucky due to environmental concerns.

“Ironically, prisoners are frequently counted for the purpose of gerrymandering voting districts,” observed HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “So why are we missing the mark in terms of environmental protections for those forced to live inside toxic prisons, such as facilities built on coal mining sites or waste dumps?”

The 93 organizations that signed onto HRDC’s comment submitted to the EPA included the Amistad Law Project, Climate Justice Alliance, a number of Earth First! chapters, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Global Justice Ecology Project, Justice Now, the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, Southern Center for Human Rights, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Urban Justice Center.