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Wisconsin Prison Enters into Consent Decree to Correct Tainted Water

In 2014, Wisconsin’s Fox Lake Correctional Institution (Fox Lake) executed a consent decree with the state Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) in response to complaints about high levels of copper and lead in the prison’s water supply.

WDNR had first given Fox Lake a Notice of Noncompliance in December 2008, which noted the facility’s water had a level of copper “greater than the maximum concentration, or action level that is allowed.” By 2009 that problem had been corrected, but in 2012 another test revealed the same water supply had high levels of lead, plus excessive amounts of copper had returned. Fox Lake has exceeded maximum copper levels 18 times and lead levels six times since 2008.

The prison has also tested high for levels of manganese, which, although not dangerous to adults in most cases, causes water to taste and smell bad. Prisoners at the facility had stated the water was routinely yellow or brown, contained dark sediment and had a foul taste.

Fox Lake, which utilizes four wells for its water supply, agreed to provide plans and specifications within ninety days of the execution of the consent decree for how it intended to remediate the water quality issues, and also agreed to complete that project by early 2016. Pursuant to the consent decree, the facility will provide water samples to WDNR to show compliance with applicable quality standards. See: State of Wisconsin, Department of Natural Resources v. Fox Lake Correctional Institution, 2013-SCEE-031.

“The Fox Lake Correctional Institution water system is following all state and federal requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act to provide safe water for staff, inmates and visitors to use for drinking, cooking and bathing,” said Jeff Grothman, the Wisconsin DOC’s legislative affairs director, who was quoted in an April 2016 article.

However, Fox Lake is not the only Wisconsin prison with a history of tainted water. The 150-year-old Waupun Correctional Institution, located north of Milwaukee, has also reported high levels of lead and copper – which is not surprising given that such contamination comes from aging plumbing. According to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the prison’s water exceeded federal standards for lead 10 times and standards for copper four times since 2008. One sample tested at eight times the federal water quality limit. The facility has begun treating its water to bring it into compliance with Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

Miguel Del Toral, an official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cautioned that testing results can vary widely from day-to-day, and that even the standards established in the Safe Drinking Water Act often “systemically [miss] high lead levels and potential human exposure.”

Meanwhile, prisoners at both Fox Lake and the Waupun Correctional Institution have said prison officials still caution them to run tap water for at least thirty seconds before using it, and those who can afford to do so purchase bottled water from the prison commissaries. WDNR recommends running potentially contaminated water for two to three minutes before using it for drinking or cooking.

Prisoners at both facilities have complained of various health problems, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and skin rashes. One, Ryan K. Rozak, filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Wisconsin alleging he has been harmed by high levels of lead in the water; the court found his claims involved “complex scientific public health issues” and appointed counsel to represent him in March 2016. The case remains pending. See: Rozak v. Hepp, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wisc.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00134-jdp.

Prison Legal News has extensively covered the problem of substandard and tainted drinking water in many U.S. correctional facilities, which affects both prisoners and prison staff. [See. e.g.: PLN, Sept. 2015, p.12; Nov. 2007, p.1].


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Related legal case

Rozak v. Hepp