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Arkansas DOC Says Water is Safe, but Most Tests Not Conducted in Housing Units

by Panagioti Tsolkas

In July 2018, former prisoners and their family members in Arkansas raised concerns about a variety of issues at a hearing with state lawmakers, included concerns about the water quality at several prisons. One ex-prisoner said the water at the East Arkansas Unit was not even “fit to take a shower in.”

Water quality problems should always be a red flag when a prison’s water system is operating far beyond its capacity. But the Arkansas Department of Corrections preferred to dodge a thorough investigation rather than address a possible crisis.

Prisoners had been complaining of brown, dirty water at four state prisons, the Tucker, East Arkansas, Cummins and North Central Units and their nearby satellite camps, which use a common water system. Collectively the facilities house around half the state’s almost 18,000 prisoners.

According to news reports, the Tucker Unit, which captured headlines in November 2017 when several prisoners took two guards hostage, has a daily maximum demand of more than 890,000 gallons of water – far above the system’s capacity of 590,000 gallons per day.

Water quality experts said the discoloration was likely due to high levels of iron and manganese, according to reports they reviewed from the Arkansas Department of Health.

Following a public records request by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Health Department released inspection reports that confirmed high levels of iron in the raw well water at the East Arkansas Unit, and iron and manganese at the Tucker Unit. The levels at the Cummins and North Central Units did not raise concerns.

The reports were based on water samples taken in May and June 2018, finding iron levels at the Tucker water treatment plant as high as 2.25 milligrams per liter, well over the federally-established limit of 0.3 milligrams per liter. Measurements of manganese ranged from 0.02 to 0.04 milligrams per liter, above the 0.01 milligram federal limit.

The limits for iron and manganese set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are part of “secondary maximum contaminant levels,” which are not enforceable by the EPA. The agency says on its website that violations of secondary standards may cause people to stop drinking the water due to smell or taste, “even though the water [is] actually safe to drink.” Prisoners, of course, have to use the water available to them.

Along with high levels of iron and manganese in the Tucker Unit’s water system, inspectors noted “sand in the raw well water.”

However, one researcher who analyzed the Health Department’s inspections raised concerns that the reports were not an accurate assessment of prison water quality problems because few of the samples came from the taps that prisoners use, where old and corroded pipes may result in significantly higher levels of contamination.

“We are unable to say anything about the quality of the water that is consumed by the prisoners since the data sheets do not indicate that any samples were collected at the taps accessed by prisoners,” noted Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a researcher at Boston University who reviewed the water quality reports.

The North Central Unit, located near Calico Rock, Arkansas, was the only facility where water samples were identified as coming from taps in prisoner housing units.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections is reportedly working on a $500,000 project to add a water filtration system at the Tucker Unit. 

Sources: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Associated Press


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