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HRDC comment to EPA with 138 sign-ons, re environmental impacts on prisoners - July 2016

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Human Rights Defense Center

Renewing Comments Re: Prisoner Populations Letter in EJ 2020 Action Agenda
Last year, in July 2015, HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project submitted a letter re: EPA’s Draft Framework for
the EJ 2020 Plan, pointing out a glaring oversight in the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.
It was a 10-page comment with 93 organizations signed on, and it was submitted alongside comments
from the largest environmental organization in the country, the Sierra Club (representing over a million
members) and EJ Forum (a coalition of the 43 most active EJ organizations across the country), which
referenced and reinforced our concerns in their comments.
Attached is a renewed and updated comment.
We understand that EJ 2020 covers a wide range of crucial issues, and we found ourselves in agreement
with the broad comments of the two organizations listed and linked above, as well as other groups that
addressed local and national concerns.
Based on our review of the agency’s documents that have been released since that time, our comment
appears to have been largely ignored.1
Our concerns for the millions of people impacted by, and forced to live within, this nation’s prisons
barely warranted a single line at the bottom of the page in the EPA’s summary of public comments.
The recent water crisis experienced in Flint, Michigan specifically impacted prisoners in the Genessee
County Jail, and a federal judge weighing in on contaminated water and extreme heat in Texas state
prisons, have provided additional examples of the need to address EJ concerns involving prisons.
Despite more than a year of dialogue with EPA representatives and an in-person meeting in Washington,
D.C. on June 10, 2016, the reason for this agency omitting or ignoring imprisoned people remains a
mystery. Especially in light of other agencies, such as the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Atomic
Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), opting to do so in recent years, as we have referenced on page 4 of
HRDC’s updated comment that is attached.
Yet EPA staff continue to make excuses, namely citing a legal concern that prisoners represent a
speculative population that they are not equipped to analyze. Unfortunately, we are left feeling that this
attitude represents the very “discriminatory effect” that Title VI and EO 12898 were written to protect
communities against.


This includes (1) the Draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda, (2) EPA’s Response to Public Comments on the Draft EJ 2020
Action Agenda Framework, (3) National Measures Technical Appendix, and (4) EPA Region 4’s comment on the
Letcher County Draft and Final EIS

While prisoners generally come from urban and rural areas representing a cross-section of the
communities most overburdened by pollution from industrial facilities, the prison experience often
places them into a new category where they also become a unique, distinct demographic of people
forced to reside inside an industrial facility.
By not explicitly including prisoners, the EPA is missing a significant opportunity to develop inter-agency
strategies on environmental justice for this uniquely vulnerable and over-burdened community of
people. And the agency is putting itself at risk of violating the very framework it has been charged with
overseeing since 1994.
In addition to the background information that was presented last year (and is reiterated in HRDC’s
updated comment attached to this email), the authors and undersigned organizations are also including
the following specific suggestions for inclusion in a final EJ 2020 Action Agenda:

EPA should include prisoners as one of the “100 most overburdened communities” that EJ 2020
will focus on. Note that the definition of EJ communities is not defined solely by geography, but
also by groups of people with common environmental/economic experiences (as is the case, for
example, with migrant farmworkers). Within the category of a prisoner community, there will be
sub-groups of EJ communities, much like other overburdened communities in multi-racial
neighborhoods or in geographic areas where multiple Native tribes or nations were forced to
relocate, where members of several EJ demographics are all disproportionately impacted.2


EPA should acknowledge that mass incarceration in the U.S. represents a “discriminatory effect”
perpetuated by the federal government, and that, in regard to Title VI, there is a clear case to be
made that the operation of prisons on toxic sites, such as former coal mines, landfills, Superfund
sites, etc., constitutes a discriminatory effect on the EJ community of prisoners.3

Specific input on the Draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda and EPA’s Response to Public Comments on the EJ
2020 Framework:


Page 13 of the EJ 2020 Draft indicates that “where EPA is unable to address identified EJ
concerns in EPA permit conditions, EPA will identify other federal, state or local agencies or
other entities that may be able to assist.” If securing effective data for prisoner demographics is
an obstacle (as has been claimed), there are several avenues to remedy this, including resources
from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Census Bureau and several non-governmental
organizations that have done further analysis of these agencies’ findings. The EPA should
indicate if it has reached out to these entities, and what the response has been.

The EJ 2020 Action Agenda references “working with federally recognized tribes and indigenous people” among
its primary goals. It bears noting that statistics show Native Americans, along with essentially every other EJ
demographic, are consistently over-represented in the prison population.
In order to understand the context for shining the EJ spotlight on prisons, the EPA needs to understand that mass
incarceration in general came as a response to the Civil Rights movement, where government agencies replaced
overt discrimination with persistent criminalization of low-income people of color. That is not speculation, as the
current administration has admitted to same when attempting to address the undisputed discriminatory effect of
disparate sentencing for drug-related charges.



Page 14 of the EJ 2020 Draft states that the “EPA will enhance communication and transparency
with affected communities and the public regarding compliance and enforcement action.” In
this spirit, the EPA should re-publish a record of the successful enforcement actions of Region 3’s
Prison Initiative from 1999 –2011 as a starting point to launch a national EPA Prison Initiative.


Page 26 of the EJ 2020 Draft references the five priority areas of 2015 Interagency Working
Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG) “Framework for Collaboration” over the next three
years. Four of those five (climate change impacts, NEPA, rural communities and indigenous
peoples) include clear connections to the concern of recognizing prisoners. The EPA should note
this in the Final EJ 2020 Action Agenda.


Page 28 of the EJ 2020 Draft states that the EJ IWG will “identify and leverage federal resources
to address environmental challenges and build sustainable communities.” Addressing the
problem of prisons with other federal agencies—such as the DOJ, which spends billions on the
prison system every year—is a good way to do some of this leveraging. The EPA should indicate
that it will reach out to the DOJ and suggest a Memorandum of Understanding akin to the one it
has with the Department of Labor.4


Page 29 of the EJ 2020 Draft states that “100% of all current EPA NEPA reviewers will complete
[a] review of Promising Practices and [National Training Product].” The EPA should require its
Region 4 NEPA reviewer to confirm that this has been completed in regard to the BOP Letcher
County EIS which is still pending a Record of Decision, and would likely accept an ex parte filing
from another federal agency which is part of the EJ IWG under the DOJ. Region 4 must ask the
BOP to conduct an assessment of the prisoners it plans to transfer from overcrowded federal
facilities, as the project’s needs assessment indicates is the plan.


Page 37 of the EJ 2020 Draft lists four key areas in which EPA has existing measures: lead,
drinking water, air quality and hazardous wastes. Each of these issues has also been
demonstrated to impact prisoner populations. The EPA should indicate this overlap in goals and
priorities as a reason to explicitly incorporate prisoner populations in its planning.5


Page 16 of the EPA’s Response to Public Comments on the Draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda
Framework states the “EPA is committed to ensuring that its programs [to] protect human
health and the environment address EJ hot spots.” The EPA should indicate where these “hot
spots” overlap with prisoner populations, among the other overburdened communities that
make up those spots.


Page 10 of the EPA’s Response to Public Comments on the Draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda
Framework states that “through EJSCREEN and other agency tools, EPA has made great strides
in considering prison populations.” HRDC’s attempt to use EJSCREEN to explicitly identify any
prison populations or the location of prisons was unsuccessful. The EPA should add layers to the

See Footnote #4 in HRDC’s Updated comment on the inclusion of prisoner populations in the Environmental
Protection Agency’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda, attached to this letter.
While the lead concern listed focuses on childhood blood levels, there is also crossover here, as learning impacts
associated with lead exposure have been documented as a factor in the school-to-prison pipeline which typically
occurs in overburdened communities. The following article addresses this concern using Flint, MI as an example:

EJSCREEN tool that assist in identifying prisoner populations, as well as other similarly unique
demographics which the Census Bureau’s Annual Community Survey (ACS) has been
incorporating into its reports over the past decade.
We have decided to assist the EPA in achieving its goal of increased public input on EJ matters impacting
prisoner populations by suggesting that organizations and individuals make use of the following
resources described in the Draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda.
EPA’s existing citizens’ concerns reporting system, using this link:
EPA’s External Compliance and Complaints Program under Title VI, using this link:
Additionally, through the suggestion of EPA staff, we are also encouraging the public to contact the DOJ,
as an agency member of the EJ IWG, using this link:
In closing, we encourage the EPA not to abdicate its responsibility to prisoners with respect to enforcing
environmental laws and providing guidance on civil rights issues that relate to environmental justice. We
hope these comments are useful and we look forward to your action on these urgent environmental
injustices that imprisoned populations are facing.
Paul Wright

Director, HRDC
Editor, Prison Legal News
Former Prisoner
David Pellow

Director, Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara
Analyst, Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons


All EPA Points of Contact for EJ 2020
Stuart Delery, Acting Associate Attorney General, DOJ
Thomas A. Webber, Chief, Capacity Planning and Construction Branch, BOP
Issac Gaston, Site Selection Specialist, BOP

Human Rights Defense Center

July 28, 2016


Charles Lee
Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice
USEPA, Office of Environmental Justice (2201-A)
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20460

Updated comment on the inclusion of prisoner populations in the
Environmental Protection Agency’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda

Dear Mr. Lee:
The Human Rights Defense Center’s (HRDC) Prison Ecology Project and the undersigned
organizations and individuals submit the following comment on the Environmental Protection
Agency’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda.
While it is encouraging to see the EPA attempting to increase the effectiveness of Executive
Order 12898 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in protecting communities that have been
overburdened by industrial pollution, we also find that there is a significant piece missing to the
dialogue thus far: recognition of the vast number of prisoners and their families as an extremely
and uniquely overburdened population.1
The need for EJ 2020 comes from the unfortunate reality that many of the environmental permit
approvals that have taken place in recent decades, and continue today, fall into a category of
poverty discrimination policies which almost exclusively impact poor communities, with a
disproportionate impact on poor communities of color. Few industrial sectors exemplify this
more clearly than the prison industry.2

HRDC uses the term “prisoner” to refer to people held in prisons, jails, detention facilities, civil commitment
centers and other facilities that detain people against their will as punishment or while awaiting court-related
proceedings, i.e. trial, sentencing, deportation, etc.
On July 9, 2015, the Prison Policy Initiative released a new report on prisoner income: “Using an underutilized
data set from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, this report provides hard numbers on the low incomes of incarcerated
men and women from before they were locked up.… The American prison system is bursting at the seams with
people who have been shut out of the economy and who had neither a quality education nor access to good jobs. We
found that, in 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration,
which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.” See:

P.O. Box 1151
Lake Worth, FL 33460
Phone: 561.360.2523 Fax: 866.735.7136
Paul Wright, Executive Director:

Page | 2

A recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that, according to the U.S. Census,
blacks are incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites, and Hispanics/Latinos are nearly twice
as likely to be incarcerated as whites. It goes further to illustrate that white people are
underrepresented in every one of the 50 states’ prison populations, whereas black,
Hispanic/Latino and Native Americans are consistently overrepresented in every state.3
There are approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in prisons, jails, immigration detention
centers and other correctional facilities in the United States; if all of those prisoners were housed
in one location, it would constitute the fourth-largest city in the nation with a population greater
than that of Houston, Texas.4
If we can recognize there is a problem with forcing people to live in close proximity to toxic and
hazardous environmental conditions, then why are we ignoring prisoners who are forced to live
inside detention facilities impacted by such conditions?
We realize that the federal government’s responsibilities are divided up among multiple
agencies, with the EPA dealing primarily in issues related to ambient pollution. As such, some
of the issues addressed below may be outside the EPA’s immediate jurisdiction, but we
understand the EPA to be leading the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice and
feel that you will be able to best discern which agencies are best positioned to address the unique
circumstances of prisoner populations.5
While we cannot speak to the knowledge of all federal agencies, we believe that both the EPA
and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are well informed about the environmental impact of mass
incarceration on poor communities in general and poor communities of color in particular, and
that this impact affects both those imprisoned in detention facilities and those who are employed
in or live near them.6
While prisons themselves are sources of outdoor pollution, e.g. particulates from outdated prison
boilers, discharges of untreated or inadequately treated sewage, etc., which affect surrounding
communities that also often fit the criteria of EJ communities, that matter is not what we are
addressing in this particular comment.


“Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity” by
Leah Sakala, May 28, 2014. Source:
For example, the EPA has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with OSHA:
This presumably takes the Department of Labor’s “Environmental Justice Strategy” into consideration: We found no language addressing environmental safety for the prisoner workforce, and
no comparable MOU with the DOJ.
In 2007, under an agreement with the EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons voluntarily audited
16 of its facilities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia to see if they were meeting regulations for
controlling air and water pollution, hazardous waste and other environmental risks. These audits did not appear to
include any EJ component that acknowledged the demographic of prisoners. Source:

Page | 3

The intention of this comment is to provide background on how prisoners are excluded from
environmental justice protections, both in the permitting of prisons and the permitting of other
industrial facilities operating in proximity to prisons. We have also provided a dozen examples
of how and where this has manifested in various regions throughout the country.
Background on the EPA and Prisons
Beginning in 1999, the Office of Enforcement, Compliance, and Environmental Justice (OECEJ)
within EPA Region III conducted what they called a “prison initiative.” Although this initiative
has not been very active in conducting inspections since about 2011, over the course of a decade
EPA Region III conducted multiple investigations of conditions in prisons which resulted in a
broad spectrum of enforcement actions.7 This initiative is well-documented through articles and
press releases published online and in printed publications such as the National Environmental
Enforcement Journal.8
Since January 2015, HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project has been conducting extensive research,
public records requests, interviews and reviews of Environmental Impact Statements and
Environmental Assessments to understand how environmental justice criteria has been applied
to prisoner populations, given the overwhelming evidence that prisoners are disproportionately
people of color and almost entirely low-income, regardless of race. We are disappointed to
report that we have seen no information pointing to any intention of the EPA to recognize the
population of people in prison, despite the fact that they constitute the most vulnerable and
overburdened demographic of citizens in the country.
In an interview conducted by the Prison Ecology Project on February 5, 2015, EPA Region III
representative Donna Heron explained explicitly that environmental justice guidelines have not
been applied to prisoners because the EPA uses census data which does not take prisoners into
We find this reason to be insufficient. The data exists and could be gathered to allow the EPA to
effectively and accurately determine environmental impacts on incarcerated populations. If the
EPA’s chosen data happens not to include these populations, the EPA should seek to supplement
the data for these missing populations by conducting research on what other data sources should
be included to provide the most accurate picture of the populations that will be subject to any
environmental impacts, including prisoner populations.9


Until very recently, the activity of Region III’s Prison Initiative was documented online, but it was removed for an
unclear, unjustified reason. Some of the information previously posted online can now only be found on the Prison
Ecology Project’s website:
In particular, an article written by EPA inspector Garth Conner, titled “An Investigation and Analysis of the
Environmental Problems at Prisons,” was published in the May 2003 edition of the NEE Journal, addressing the
overpopulation of prisons and the industrial facilities operated within them. The article highlighted six separate
investigations which all resulted in a broad spectrum of enforcement activity at state, federal and local correctional
HRDC is requesting further dialogue with EPA staff on this matter, as the methods used by the EPA to gather
population data, and the consistency of those methods, are currently unclear.

Page | 4

We also found that prison-related permitting has often attempted to claim a Finding of No
Significant Impact (FONSI) in permitting, or worse, has alleged “categorical exclusions” that
keep these plans off the radar of public input.10 We feel that when plans are being made that
involve the incarceration of hundreds or thousands of low-income people, for which there are
alternatives to incarcerating in the first place, this must be viewed as a significant environmental
justice impact.
While the EPA does not seem to have a record of acknowledging prisoner populations that we
could locate, we are aware of at least two examples in which other federal entities have
acknowledged prisoner populations – the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) and the
Department of Energy (DOE).11
The DOJ, BOP and Environmental Justice
“During the twenty years since Executive Order 12898 was issued, there have been
significant accomplishments by community leaders, Federal, state, local and tribal
governments, and others to advance this important work. Yet there is more work to be
done. Low-income, minority, and tribal Americans are still disproportionately burdened
with pollution, resulting in disproportionate health problems, greater obstacles to
economic growth, and a lower quality of life. The Department will continue to play a
vital role in making environmental justice a reality for all Americans. We welcome []
input on the Department’s environmental justice activities, strategy, and guidance as we
move forward.”
— Stuart F. Delery, Acting Associate Attorney General, from the DOJ’s 2014
Implementation Progress Report on Environmental Justice12
The DOJ’s updated guiding document on Environmental Justice Strategy contains much lipservice to viewing EJ as a priority. Section III.C.4, “Specific Component Obligations,” states the
Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is “working to ensure that its activities are consistent with the
President’s mandate [Executive Order 12898]. For example, the Bureau will include consideration of environmental justice in its environmental impact statements [EIS] under the National
Environmental Policy Act [NEPA].”13

The following is a 2014 announcement of a FONSI on a 2,000-bed immigrant detention facility, before there was
even a site selected. According to the notice, “A geographical restriction associated with the RFP required the
facility to be located in one of the following states: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, or New
York. See:
In 2013, the ASLB found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff had “failed to comply with its . . .
obligations” to analyze environmental justice impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act. Source: Also, from the DOE’s October 2007 Final EIS, p.xxxi (PDF p.33) for the Gilberton coal power
project in PA: “The Mahanoy State Correctional Institution is located 2,600 ft east of the proposed main plant site,
and its minority inmate population represents an ‘environmental justice‘ population to which the adverse impacts of
constructing and operating the proposed facilities could be distributed disproportionately.”

Page | 5

During the period that EPA conducted its prison initiative in Region III, reports also surfaced
about rampant pollution and environmental health problems stemming from industrial facilities
in federal prisons nationwide. According to a 2010 report, the Justice Department’s Office of the
Inspector General cited “numerous violations of health, safety and environmental laws,
regulations and (Bureau of Prisons) policies” at certain prison industry programs.14
However, according to our research, the BOP has never taken its prisoner population into
consideration under NEPA’s EJ guidance. This remained true as of the agency’s most recent
example of a NEPA-required EIS, which was published for public comment last year for a
facility in Letcher County, Kentucky. HRDC prepared a comment which, among other issues,
addressed insufficient efforts to address EJ-related concerns.15 The following is an excerpt from
HRDC’s comment submitted to the BOP:
Under the Environmental Justice guidelines of NEPA, and according to the EIS, the
people most probable to be in BOP custody if this facility was built are very likely to meet
the criteria for recognition as Environmental Justice communities. Inside the prison, the
racial demographics and income of prisoners can be reasonably projected to populate
the facility based on the demographics of other BOP facilities in the country.… The BOP
reports 41% percent of its population to be of non-white “minority” status,16 whereas
this racial demographic only makes up approximately 25% of the entire US population.17
The EIS also says nothing of prisoners’ status as an almost entirely low-income
The EIS goes on to allege that, essentially, the only EJ impact to the local community (which is
a low-income rural region of Appalachia) will be the positive economic benefits associated with
the prison. The most obvious oversight here is that the region is known to have extreme water
contamination problems due to decades of heavy coal mining operations. In fact, both proposed
sites for the anticipated BOP facility are located on abandoned mines.18
In a review of a 2010 Environmental Assessment (EA) for a state prison being turned over to the
BOP for use as a supermax prison in Thomson, Illinois, HRDC found a very similar approach to
EJ matters with respect to permitting.19 This facility, which will be used for extreme isolation
units (solitary confinement) when opened, included no mention in its permits of the anticipated
demographics which would populate the prison, nor the prison’s proximity to a number of coal

HRDC’s comment on the BOP’s Letcher County prison siting proposal can be found here:
Current BOP statistics do not include specific numbers for Latino or Hispanic prisoners, though they do report
19% of BOP prisoners are citizens of Latin American countries. (A 2010 report stated that 33% are “Hispanic from
any race”). Source:
U.S. Census Bureau, “The White Population 2010.” Source:
The complete EIS can be viewed here:
The complete Environmental Assessment can be viewed here:

Page | 6

and nuclear plants, as well as a military Superfund site. The EA also avoided taking a hard look
at operating such a facility in a flood zone, less than half-a-mile from the Mississippi River, and
what unique challenges this could pose to an extremely vulnerable population likely to fit the
criteria of an EJ demographic.
The DOJ, as a participating agency in the implementation of EJ strategy, should set a national
example as a federal agency by requiring the prisoner populations in the custody of the Bureau
of Prisons to be explicitly included in environmental reviews. The regional EPA offices should
be coordinating with state and county agencies to do the same.
Below are some additional examples which illustrate the need for recognizing prisoners in
environmental justice policy and implementation strategy:



New Orleans, Louisiana jail post-Katrina – This facility became an example of how
ill-prepared county-run jails are to handle emergency situations, sparking a report by
the ACLU on the terrible reality that unfolded for prisoners after the storm in 2005.
“The prisoners inside the Orleans Parish Prison suffered some of the worst horrors of
Hurricane Katrina,” said Eric Balaban, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National
Prison Project. “Because society views prisoners as second-class citizens, their stories
have largely gone unnoticed and therefore untold.”20


Escambia County, Florida jail flood – In May 2014, another flood-related disaster at
a county-run jail on the Gulf Coast illustrated that very little had been done since the
lessons of Katrina to address the dangers of incarcerating people in increasingly
flood-prone areas. At the Escambia County jail in north Florida, severe rain led to
flooding in the basement of the facility that in turn resulted in a gas leak and
explosion that killed two prisoners and injured many others.21


Chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia – Another risk to prisoners, who are
often located in industrial wastelands where the likelihood of pollution disasters can
contaminate the water supply, was demonstrated at the South Central Regional Jail in
Charleston after a major coal-processing-related chemical spill occurred in January
2014 when a storage tank ruptured. Prisoners were affected by the water
contamination to a greater extent than many other local residents, as they were
exposed to the contaminated water for longer periods without proper notice.22


Sing Sing Correctional Facility and the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York – A
2012 legal proceeding filed by environmental groups in the Hudson Valley of New
York during an administrative hearing of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
exposed a completely insufficient emergency evacuation plan for prisoners held at


Page | 7

Sing Sing Correctional Facility, again illustrating why this population fits the criteria
of an EJ demographic.23

Rikers Island jail, New York City – The Rikers Island jail complex has become
notorious for its location on a toxic waste landfill site where lawsuits have been filed
against the facility by employees who became ill due to the conditions there.24 As a
result of this landfill, there have been pockets of methane gas that rupture under the
site reportedly causing foul odors and structural damage. In addition, the lack of an
evacuation plan during Hurricane Sandy illustrated the increased potential for floodrelated disasters at this facility.25


Coal ash dump in LaBelle, Pennsylvania – Surveys and reports from prisoners at the
State Correctional Institute-Fayette have indicated ongoing problems related to
sickness among prisoners who are exposed to airborne coal dust. The prison houses
over 2,000 prisoners, was built on top of a former coal mine and sits adjacent to a
506-acre coal ash dump owned and operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting (MCC).
The dump receives ash waste from coal-fired power plants throughout the region.
Before it became a fly ash dump, it was one of the world’s largest coal preparation
plants, which left over 40 million tons of coal waste. MCC recently renewed its
permit to dump 416,000 tons of coal ash per year at the site. Coal ash contains
mercury, lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, cadmium and thallium. “In short, coal
ash toxins have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage
physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality,” according to a
report by Physicians for Social Responsibility.26
Thirteen Colorado prisons in contaminated area – Cañon City is the location of nine
state and four federal prisons and penitentiaries. It’s also known for longstanding
water quality problems related to the mining and processing of uranium. 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 Cotter uranium mill site
was put on a national list for Superfund cleanups. The wells were up to 360 times the
federal health limit. “Vapors can seep up through the soil and get into homes. Then
you have not only a drinking issue but an inhalation risk,” EPA spokeswoman Sonya
Pennock said. But cleanup isn’t expected until 2027. Additionally, according to
Sharon Cunningham of Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste (CCAT), there is
only one known air monitoring site west of the Cotter site and the prison grounds


Sources: (1); (2); (3)
Sources: (1); (2)

Page | 8

have probably never been sampled for soil contamination from particles being blown
into the area.27



Valley fever at Avenal and Pleasant Valley State Prisons, California – Lawsuits and
news reports have repeatedly noted that people imprisoned in areas prone to valley
fever (resulting from drought, over-development and increased temperatures) are at
elevated risk of contracting that disease due to constant exposure and abysmal
healthcare options available in prisons.28 Valley fever has claimed the lives of more
than 50 prisoners and sickened thousands of others. A federal court ordered the
removal of thousands of prisoners from the Avenal State Prison and Pleasant Valley
State Prison due to concerns about valley fever. According to a report in Prison Legal
News, “Medical studies have shown that Filipinos, blacks, Hispanics and people
suffering from diabetes and HIV are more susceptible to valley fever, meaning that
prisoners in the Central Valley – where 16 of California’s 33 adult prisons are located
– are especially vulnerable. For example, blacks comprise just 6.6% of California’s
general population but make up 29% of the state’s prison population.” Similar
problems involving valley fever have been reported in Arizona, at the Saguaro
Correctional Center in Eloy, disproportionately impacting Hawaiian prisoners.29


Arsenic in Texas and California prison water supplies – This is a reoccurring story,
where prisons such as Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California and the Wallace
Pack Unit near Navasota, Texas are built in areas with contaminated water supplies
and prisoners are forced to endure health impacts due to these environmental
conditions. In June 2016, in a lawsuit filed by prisoners, a federal judge in Texas held
that arsenic-laden water “violates contemporary standards of decency.”30


Lead in Michigan and Wisconsin prison water supplies – This issue has surfaced in
multiple facilities. Prisoners at the Genessee County jail in Michigan received only
nine days’ worth of bottled water in late 2015, despite a public health emergency
being declared. The jail then stopped providing prisoners with bottled water, forcing
them to drink, shower and eat food prepared with Flint city water. Also, the Waupun
Correctional Institution in Wisconsin has struggled with high copper and lead levels
for years. Officials at the 150-year-old prison say the facility is using water treatment
to keep metals from aging lead and copper pipes from leaching into the water, but
prisoners report ongoing water problems.31

Sources: (1); (2); (3)
Sources : (1); (2)
Source on arsenic:; in Texas: (1); (2); in California:
Sources: (1); (2)

Page | 9



Prisons built on military Superfund site in California – The Victorville Federal
Correctional Complex was built on the site of one of the Weapons Storage Areas
(WSA) for the former George Air Force Base in California, Superfund ID:
CA2570024453. The DOD and Air Force did a federal-to-federal transfer of Parcel K
to the BOP, a site which contains the former South WSA. The Victorville Federal
Correctional Complex (FCC) consists of three facilities: FCI Victorville Medium I,
Medium II and United States Penitentiary-Victorville.32 A federal-to-federal transfer
was also done with Castle Air Force Base’s WSA, where the United States
Penitentiary (USP) in Atwater was built “on a part of the base near where munitions
were kept and where investigators from the Air Force Safety Center suspect nuclear
weapons were maintained and stored.”33 These sites are among many other prisons
built on or near contaminated military sites.


Toxic and hazardous site for immigrant detention in Tacoma, Washington – The
Northwest Detention Center, a privately-operated prison designed to house 1,575
immigrants, is adjacent to a Superfund site known as Project Area #3 of the Tacoma
Tar Pits (EPA ID# WAD980726368).34 The location is also in a designated volcanic
hazard zone as well as a tsunami flood zone, and lacks sufficient evacuation plans.35


Water contamination in prisons nationwide – A report published by Prison Legal
News in 2007 highlighted seventeen states, including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana,
Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio and Washington, where water contamination in
prisons and their surrounding communities had been reported to cause problems
including illness (such as Legionnaire’s Disease) and various environmental
violations.36 The report concluded that protections under the Clean Water Act may be
difficult for prisoners, as such problems are often complex, requiring water testing
and expert witnesses to prove a claim, neither of which are likely to be available to
the average pro se prisoner litigant. According to author John Dannenberg, “As the
environmental movement in the United States grows, it may be time to make the
connection to environmental degradation caused by mass imprisonment.”37

EPA Victorville Superfund Record of Decision:

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Alternatives to Incarceration
While most of these issues present environmental justice concerns in a traditional sense of
the concept, there is another component which is an overarching matter for many if not all of
the examples listed above—the existence of alternatives to incarceration.38 The review of
alternatives is an integral piece of permitting through NEPA. When considering the value or
need for a prison, there should be a hard look (as NEPA requires) at the ways in which a
reduction in prisoner populations would reduce or eliminate the need for constructing or
expanding prisons, and thus reduce or eliminate resulting environmental justice concerns.
Impacts on Children
In addition, we feel that consideration of environmental justice impacts on prisoners should
extend to the families of prisoners as well, in particular those with children. Statistics show that
one in 28 children has a parent in prison—2.7 million children are growing up in households in
which one or more parents are incarcerated. Two-thirds of these parents are incarcerated for
nonviolent offenses, primarily drug offenses. One in nine black children has an incarcerated
parent, compared to one in 28 Hispanic/Latino children and one in 57 white children.39 Even
Sesame Street has taken note of the plight of children with parents in prison.40
The absence of parents due to incarceration has a significant impact on the communities where
these children live. This factor should be considered among a review of the cumulative impacts
that affect environmental justice communities.41 While a parent’s absence may be temporary,
negative health impacts resulting from incarceration can continue far beyond a prisoner’s release
date, causing additional financial and emotional hardships for families with children.
Next Steps
For the above-stated reasons, HRDC and the undersigned organizations and individuals ask the
EPA to use the EJ 2020 Action Agenda to ensure that the millions of prisoners in this country
receive the protections that are intended under Executive Order 12898 and Title VI of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964.


Extensive examples of alternatives to incarceration can be found on the following websites: Office of National
Drug Control Policy,; American Psychological
Association,; Families Against Mandatory Minimums
(FAMM),; article from The
The EPA’s involvement in the Partnership for Sustainable Communities provides context for the EJ cumulative
impacts that we refer to here. “Creating healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities is a priority of the federal
government. Environmental Justice plays a key role in an integrated effort that concurrently addresses housing,
environment, transportation and health issues.” Source:

Page | 11

HRDC would like to participate further in the EPA’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda, to ensure that
prisoners are taken into consideration with respect to environmental justice and impacts on
minority and low-income populations. Please contact me to discuss how we may do so. For
example, our staff can be available for additional meetings in-person or via conference call, and
we can continue to invite participation from other stakeholders and advocates in the prisoners’
rights and criminal justice reform community who are interested in this issue.
Thank you for reviewing our concerns; I look forward to further communication on this subject.
If you have questions or require additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Paul Wright
Executive Director, HRDC

All EPA Points of Contact for EJ 2020
Stuart Delery, Acting Associate Attorney General, DOJ
Thomas A. Webber, Chief, Capacity Planning and Construction Branch, BOP
Issac Gaston, Site Selection Specialist, BOP

The following 138 organizations and individuals are signatories to this comment:
Abolitionist Law Center (PA)
Amistad Law Project (PA)
Appalachia Resist! (OH)
Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility
Asian Pacific Environmental Network
Athens Books to Prisoners (OH)
Bill of Rights Defense Committee – Tacoma (WA)
Black Lives Matter, Kentucky
California Coalition for Women Prisoners
California Families Against Solitary Confinement

Page | 12

California Partnership
California Prison Moratorium Project
Campaign for Youth Justice (DC)
Cascadia Forest Defenders (OR)
Center for Biological Diversity
Center for Earth, Energy & Democracy
Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CA)
Center for Sustainable Economy
Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights (MA)
Civil Liberties Defense Center
Climate Justice Alliance
Climate Justice Project (CA)
Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights (NM)
Columbia Legal Services (WA)
Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice
Critical Resistance Los Angeles (CA)
Cross Timbers Earth First! (OK)
CURB (Californians United for a Responsible Budget)
Detention Watch Network
Dignity & Power Now (CA)
Drug Policy Alliance
Earth First! Humboldt (CA)
Earth First! Prison Support Project

Page | 13

EJ Mothers’ Safe Air Safe Water Force (AZ)
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Enlace Int’l
Environmental Health Coalition (CA)
Environmental Health Research Associates, LLC.
Environmental Justice Advocates - Lewis & Clark Law School (OR)
Everglades Earth First!
Fen Valley Earth First! (MI)
Florida Institutional Legal Services (Project of Florida Legal Services, Inc.)
Florida Justice Institute, Inc
Georgia Detention Watch
George Jackson University
Glacier’s Edge Earth First! (IN)
Global Justice Ecology Project
Global Action Research Center (CA)
Got Green? (WA)
Grassroots Leadership (TX)
Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. (NY)
Hudson Valley Earth First! (NY)
Human Rights Coalition—Fed Up! (PA)
Incarcerated Nation Corp (NY)
International CURE
Jesuit Social Research Institute

Page | 14

Justice for Families
Justice Now
Justice Strategies
Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (IL)
Longleaf Earth First! (FL)
Maza Tipi Oyate (“Iron House Nation,” Lakota)
Middle Ground Prison Reform
Movement Generation (CA)
NAACP-Lexington, KY Chapter 3097
National Jericho Movement
National Lawyers Guild
National Lawyers Guild - Lewis & Clark Chapter (OR)
National Lawyers Guild Mass Incarceration Committee
National Police Accountability Project
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Natural Resources Defense Council
New York City Jails Action Coalition
New York Environmental Law and Justice Project
November Coalition
The Nuclear Resister (AZ)

Page | 15

Ohio Student Association
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (WV)
Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition (FL)
People’s Law Office (IL)
Peoples Justice League (OH)
Power U Center for Social Change (FL)
Prison Books Collective (Chapel Hill, NC)
Prison Law Office (CA)
Prison Policy Initiative
Prison Watch Network
Prisoners’ Legal Services (MA)
The Promise of Justice Initiative (LA)
Queer Detainee Empowerment Project
Radical Action for Mountain Peoples Survival (RAMPS)
RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services)
Rainforest Action Network
Real Cost of Prisons Project
Rising Tide North America
Roses out of Concrete (KY)
Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network
San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper
Sentencing and Justice Reform Advocacy (CA)
The Sentencing Project

Page | 16

Sin Barras
Showing Up For Racial Justice, Central Kentucky
Solitary Watch
SOL Education (FL)
Southern Center for Human Rights
Southern Poverty Law Center
Stories from South Central (WV)
Support Vegans in the Prison System
Sylvia Rivera Law Project (NY)
Tar Sands Blockade (TX)
Texas Civil Rights Project
Texas Jail Project
TWAC (Trans and Women Action Camp) Cascadia
UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic
Urban Justice Center (NYC)
Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center
Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
Virginia Organizing
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (DC)
Women’s Council of the CA Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers
Working Narratives (NC)
350 Vermont
350 Santa Barbara

Page | 17


Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace US
Dan Berger, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences,
University of Washington Bothell*
David Pellow, Director of Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of
California, Santa Barbara*
Dr. Adrienne L. Hollis, Esq., Director of Federal Policy, WE ACT for Environmental
Dr. Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and
Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, UC Riverside*
Dr. Daniel Faber, Director, Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative
Dr. Robert Bullard, “Father of Environmental Justice” and Dean of the Barbara JordanMickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University*
Dr. Sylvia Hood Washington, editor-in-chief of the Environmental Justice Journal
Dr. Tony Silvaggio, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Environment and
Community MA Program, Humboldt State University*
Dylan Rodriguez, cofounder of Critical Resistance and Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC
Judah Schept, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Justice Studies, Eastern Kentucky
Laura Pulido, Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of Oregon*
Victoria E. Collins, PhD, Secretary/Treasurer for the Division on Critical Criminology,
Associate Professor, School of Justice Studies, Eastern Kentucky University*

*Institutional affiliation listed for identification purposes only