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Litigation Surrounding Radon Exposure at Connecticut Prison Moves Forward

by Panagioti Tsolkas

“We’re talking about levels in some places that are equivalent to smoking 2½ packs of cigarettes a day,” said Lori A. Welch-Rubin, one of the attorneys who filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at the Garner Correctional Institution (GCI) in Newtown, Connecticut. The case centers around exposure to radon gas – a known carcinogen – far above levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In September 2018, a federal district court denied in part and granted in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case. The court allowed Eighth Amendment claims arising after June 18, 1993 to proceed, as well as claims for injunctive and declaratory relief.

Andrius Banevicius, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC), said the state was reviewing the September 27 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton, claiming the state had begun routine testing for radon at GCI and recently installed a radon mitigation system at the facility.

Welch-Rubin was unconvinced.

“They still haven’t tested where the prisoners are, so we don’t know if what they are now doing is even adequate,” she said.

According to Welch-Rubin, the mitigation system doesn’t cover all areas of the prison. She also noted the DOC did not use pipes that were large enough to properly vent the radon gas, which presumably seeps into the facility from surrounding bedrock.

She said the next step is to seek class-action status on behalf of all prisoners at GCI. See: Vega v. Semple, U.S.D.C. (D. Conn.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00107-JBA.

A previous lawsuit regarding radon exposure at GCI, filed on behalf of prisoners in August 2016 by attorneys Martin Minnella and Michael Stratton, was subsequently withdrawn. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.26].

GCI opened in 1992 on land that was considered to have the highest potential for radon exposure, according to EPA records. In a 2014 report, the state health department found parts of the prison had over five times the acceptable EPA levels for the gas.

The facility houses around 550 prisoners in general population, close custody and a mental health unit, as well as pre-trial detainees and a small number of federal prisoners. It employs almost 300 staff members.

While the source of radon at GCI is unknown and the gas is naturally occurring, there are several suspects for the high levels at the prison, with industrial extraction and use of uranium high on the list. Connecticut has a long history of nuclear waste problems stemming from the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, 68 miles from GCI, which is the largest power plant in New England. In 2013, for example, Millstone sought to expand onsite waste storage from 19 “cask units” of radioactive waste to 135 units by 2045.

But uranium isn’t the only possible culprit. According to a report in Scientific American, titled “Coal Ash is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste,” the fossil fuel industry is also a major source of “naturally occurring” radon gas. For example, high levels of radon were noted in the environmental review for a new federal prison to be built on a former mountaintop coal mining site in Letcher County, Kentucky. The Human Rights Defense Center, the parent organization of Prison Legal News, noted the coal mining contamination was a potential risk to prisoners in a comment submitted to the federal Bureau of Prisons. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.1].

As for the situation at GCI, “The state knew that the site was considered by the EPA to be the No. 1 radon site in Connecticut before they built it,” attorney Martin Minnella stated. ”The site was used as a waste site by Fairfield Hills Hospital. For $50,000 to $60,000 they could have remediated the problem back at the time, but they did not spend the money.”

Welch-Rubin, Minnella and other attorneys filed a separate lawsuit in state superior court in August 2018, representing 16 former employees at GCI who claim they were not properly informed of the radon problem, and as a result suffered from respiratory illnesses. Two prison workers reportedly died due to radon exposure. The plaintiffs in that case include Frank Crose, the first warden at GCI. 

Additional sources: The Charlotte Observer,


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Related legal case

Vega v. Semple