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Environmental Problems Taint Plan for New Prison in Utah


by Panagioti Tsolkas

Utah is planning to open a 4,000-bed facility to replace the Utah State Prison in Draper. After several years of considering whether to relocate or rebuild the prison, the state has settled on relocation of the Utah Department of Corrections (DOC) facility.

Draper used to be a remote, rural area prior to becoming a prison town, but has since turned into a suburb. Draper’s mayor and city council members have been working with state lawmakers Greg Hughes, Howard Stephenson and LaVar Christensen to push the plan through the legislature.

In January 2014, the Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) released a “Master Plan for the Potential Relocation of the Draper Prison.” By the following month, Hughes and Christensen had moved a successful resolution through the House in favor of building the new prison complex.

In August 2015, PRADA narrowed the site selection process down from over 30 sites to just one. The chosen site comprises 693 acres in an area located just west of the Salt Lake City airport, and lawmakers are slated to purchase the land in early 2016.

However, the newly-selected location comes with a laundry list of environmental issues, including several that could affect prisoners housed at the new facility. For starters, the property is in close proximity to two hazardous waste landfills. Further, the prison poses threats to the local ecosystem as 25% of the site consists of wetlands.

Last year the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities drafted a 45-page letter detailing concerns with the proposed prison site, noting that the location would be at risk of groundwater contamination, flooding and serious damage during earthquakes. According to the Department of Public Utilities, “The proposed access for any buried utilities will go through the landfill site and create preferential pathways for migration and spread of the contaminated plume. Furthermore, high groundwater levels in this area mean that any excavation or dewatering of the [prison] site would inevitably draw water and environmental contaminants from the old landfill property onto the site.... The prison site currently doesn’t have any access to a sewer system or water supply – and building one puts the water supply in grave danger of being contaminated by the landfill’s plume.”

The contaminated plume wouldn’t just impact the prison’s water supply; it could also degrade nearby wetlands that are a habitat for endangered species.

But Utah’s prison ecology problems go beyond pollution from the landfills. Much of Salt Lake City, including the proposed location for the new facility, has liquified soil. In earthquake-prone areas such as Utah, liquefied soil can cause buildings to tilt, sink or fall. In the event of an earthquake, prisoners would be at greater risk than the general public if they are locked in their cells at the time.

An alternative site for the prison is being considered closer to the Great Salt Lake; the final decision will be made by the governor. The new facility, which is expected to open by July 2020, will cost an estimated $550 million. State Rep. Brad Wilson has asked for an accelerated construction schedule, citing the current state of the Draper prison.

“That facility is bad,” he said, “and getting worse every day.”


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