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HRDC letter to Escambia County, FL re proposed jail on Superfund site - Nov. 2015

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Human Rights Defense Center

November 12, 2015
Re: Vote on New Jail Proposed for Former EPA Superfund Site
Dear Commissioners,
The controversy of a proposal for a new jail in Escambia County has come to the attention of our
organization’s recently-established Prison Ecology Project.
The Prison Ecology Project (PEP) was founded earlier this year as a national effort to address the
growing concern around environmental health hazards related to the construction and operation
of prison, jails and other detention facilities. While we are still scratching the surface in research
on this subject, it is clear that the reality of toxic prisons is a serious matter to contend with.
Recent decades of tough-on-crime political rhetoric has created a social climate where prisoners
are viewed as being undesirable, even expendable, elements of our society. As a result the
facilities they are forced to live in are often built on severely polluted land such as old mine sites,
landfills, military bases and other industrial areas which end up being declared Superfund sites.
In the case of this proposal for a new jail in Pensacola, the land being considered includes 26
acres northeast of the intersection of Palafox Street and Fairfield Drive which was home to the
Escambia Wood Treating Company (ETC) and was found to have contaminated an underground
aquifer and hundreds of thousands of tons of soil.
The location was designated as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
resulting in 358 families being moved out of the area because cleaning the site with citizens
nearby risked exposing them to toxic dust. This became the third largest permanent Superfund
relocation in the nation's history.
While a clean-up did finally occur, the issues surrounding the site are not resolved.
If the County Commission approves this site for a jail, the tainted property, now called the MidTown Commerce site, could once-again become a home to thousands of Escambia County
P.O. Box 1151
Lake Worth, FL 33460
Phone: 561.360.2523 Fax: 866.735.7136
Paul Wright, Executive Director:

As Wilma Subra, a chemist and president of the Subra Company who advised Citizens Against
Toxic Exposure (CATE) during the mass relocation from the contaminated ETC site, pointed out
in the Pensacola News Journal last month:
It's changing the land use the remedy was designed for ... when they did the cleanup, they
did it for industrial use based on an eight-hour standard ... people should not be allowed
to live there 24 hours.
According to federal laws intended to uphold the basic rights of a healthy environment, prisoners
are entitled to all the same protections as non-prisoners. And in the case of a county facility such
as the one being proposed, many of its residents have not been found guilty of a crime, but are
presumed to be innocent and awaiting their right to a fair trial.
More specifically, to subject individuals caught up in the criminal justice system to heightened
risks of adverse health impacts may present an environmental justice problem for this facility,
being that incarceration has been found to consistently impact low-income communities and
people of color disproportionately in every state of the country.
For example, if any federal agencies would be involved in the permitting, funding, construction
or operation of the facility, it will need to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and
Executive Order 12898 (“Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority
Populations and Low-Income Populations”).
Unfortunately Escambia County is not new to adverse impacts on prisoners in its facilities. Only
one year ago the local jail was impacted by an extreme flooding incident reminiscent of the
environmental human rights atrocities which followed Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New
Orleans in 2005, where prisoners were locked in cages at gun point while flood waters literally
rose around them, with no real evacuation plan in place. In the Escambia County jail, flooding
triggered a chain of events that lead to a massive explosion which killed two prisoners and
injured well over 100 other prisoners and staff members.
Interviews following the flood and explosion indicated that the odor of gas was extreme and
continued for many hours after reports of headaches and vomiting from the fumes, by both
prisoners and prison staff.
This incident occurred amidst a five-year federal investigation of that facility which determined
that inadequate management of the jail had led to routine violations of inmates' constitutional
rights including "appalling" levels of violence, "clearly inadequate" mental health care and a
practice of segregating inmates according to race (which was reported to have ended, but only
one year earlier.)
As the DLR Group, a consulting firm for the new jail project, pointed out in the same Pensacola
News Journal article referenced above, “abandoned landfill and industrial facilities — so-called

Brownfield sites — [have] been used to build jails and even juvenile detention centers in other
states.” That is indeed accurate, and also morally repugnant.
While the DLR Group’s statement was aimed at normalizing the practice of locking people up on
toxic waste sites, the Prison Ecology Project urges you to examine the other side of this issue.
The same communities that have experienced the brunt of pollution from contaminated industrial
sites—a phenomenon often known as environmental racism—can anticipate that their friends
and family members may now end up back on those same contaminated sites as victims of a
broken criminal justice system that places no value on their health and lives.
As a former 30-year resident of a neighborhood relocated by the ETC superfund site, Lisa
Wiggins, pointed out:
Why would you spend millions of dollars to get people out of the area, then spend
millions to put people back out there? A lot of people have passed on from cancer and
other different ailments ... you take the chance of 20 years down the line having to pay all
these prisoners. Envision you had a child that was arrested and put in jail, and you were
one of the people who were relocated. How would you feel?
Along with the possibility of facing lawsuits from prisoners regarding civil rights and health
impacts, the county should also take into consideration costs associated with potential worker’s
compensation for employees who may be impacted by the residual toxicity of expose to this site.
Instead of investing the time of public officials and taxpayers money in justifying the use of this
site for a new local prison, in violation of the land use designed by the EPA clean-up, we
encourage you to focus resources on alternatives to incarceration and community-based tools to
reduce the number of people that Escambia County places behind bars.
Thank you for considering our position on this issue.

Paul Wright
Executive Director, Human Rights Defense Center
Sent via email to Escambia County Commissioners:
Commissioner Wilson Robertson,
Commissioner Doug Underhill,
Commissioner Lumon May,
Commissioner Grover C. Robinson, IV,
Commissioner Steven Barry,