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Letter to Seattle Mayor re detention facility environmental concerns - April 2016

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Human Rights Defense Center

April 1, 2016
Mayor Ed Murray
City of Seattle
600 4th Ave., 7th Floor
Seattle, WA 98104

Re: Children and Family Justice Center MUP Permit
Dear Mayor Murry,
We are writing to express our concerns about toxic contamination in the groundwater and soil
surrounding the proposed King County Children and Family Justice Center on 12th Avenue
between Spruce and Alder. We are concerned that current plans for the construction of the
facility could expose incarcerated youth and employees to dangerous levels of carcinogens
including trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene. We are asking the City of Seattle to deny
the requested Master Use Permit for this facility, or at a minimum delay permitting until
further evaluation of the potential toxic hazards on this site is conducted.
The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) is a Washington non-profit organization dedicated
to protecting the human rights of people held in U.S. detention facilities. In 2015, HRDC
launched the Prison Ecology Project, a national alliance of environmental and prisoners’ rights
advocates exploring the intersections of environmental pollution and mass incarceration.
For the past year HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project has been conducting extensive research,
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.
From prisoners being abandoned during natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, to those
made sick by pollution and contamination, to being forced to drink lead-contaminated water in
Flint, Michigan, there is an unrecognized environmental justice crisis in our nation's prisons
and jails. Despite many examples of this injustice and reports detailing the “numerous violations
of health, safety and environmental laws,” the EPA has never classified the nation’s over 2.2

P.O. Box 1151
Lake Worth, FL 33460
Phone: 561.360.2523 Fax: 866.735.7136

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million incarcerated people as an environmental justice community.1 Following suit, the U.S.
Bureau of Prisons has never taken its prison population into consideration under the National
Environmental Policy Act’s Environmental Justice guidelines. Last year 93 organizations filed
a joint comment with the EPA requesting that prison populations be considered in the EPA’s
Environmental Justice 2020 plan.2
Across the United States it has become standard procedure to permit new and expanded prison
projects without taking adequate consideration for the health and environmental impacts on
incarcerated populations. There is an alarming trend in prison-related permitting attempting to
claim a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) in permitting, using inadequate mitigation or
alleging “categorical exclusions” that keep these plans off the radar of public input.3
We point this out to explain our hesitancy to trust King County’s permitting process to fully
consider and account for the impacts of toxics and environmental pollution on incarcerated
youth. Given that the County was not required to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement
for the Children and Family Justice Center, it would be all too easy for this project to exemplify
the national pattern of injustice with respect to detention facilities and environmental issues.
Specifically, the Environmental Checklist required by Washington’s State Environmental
Policy Act and prepared for King County’s Department of Executive Services and Facilities
Management Division states, “Recognized Environmental Conditions (RECs) were identified
including … migration of dry cleaner solvents (trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene) in
groundwater on to the property from historical operations at sites located to the north.” The
checklist further states, “Groundwater and/or soil contamination at certain locations on the site
has been found to exceed MTCA [Model Toxics Control Act] level A and B cleanup levels,”
which indicates that the contaminants are present in the groundwater and/or soil at a level
hazardous to human health.
Both trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene are associated with several types of cancers
including bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, lung, liver, kidney and
testicular tumors and lymphoma.4 The EPA has classified tetrachloroethylene as likely to be
carcinogenic to humans.5
This is particularly alarming because this facility includes a number of sections below grade, and
presumably surrounded by contaminated soil including “secure youth holding cell areas, secure

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:

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adult holding cell areas, food service [and] facility management offices....”6 We are concerned at
the implications of keeping youth incarcerated in cells surrounded by carcinogens.
The SEPA Checklist implies that not all contaminated soil can be removed, and given that the
source of contamination is north of the location, up a grade and not owned by the County, “no
remediation measures are planned.”
The Checklist states that “new buildings will be constructed with protective measures.… These
measures will likely include vapor barrier and ventilation systems.”7
This statement is alarming in its lack of specific information about what measures will be used to
protect incarcerated youth and facility employees from this toxic threat. Furthermore the use of
the word “likely” leaves open the possibility that even the suggested methods, vague as they are,
may not be used.
We are concerned that this facility has advanced this far in the permitting process without
adequate examination of the toxic threats. We are further concerned that the City of Seattle is
considering a Master Use Permit for this facility without any detailed information about
measures to protect incarcerated youth and employees from environmental hazards.
On September 16, 2015, Prison Ecology Project Steering Committee Member Ahmed Gaya
spoke about this issue before the City’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee
and asked the City to look into the matter. We are disheartened to learn that this issue remains
Our extensive research into the issue of prison environmental injustice in America leaves us
unconvinced that the protection methods proposed in the SEPA Checklist are adequate to protect
the health of incarcerated youth and employees at this facility.
We also understand the City has a commitment to environmental justice, and that you recently
announced an Environment & Equity program. We believe ignoring this issue will significantly
undermine the City’s work to address environmental justice issues.
Once again we ask the City of Seattle to deny the Master Use Permit for the King County
Children and Family Justice Center, and immediately take action on this issue.
If you would like to speak with us further you may contact Prison Ecology Project Steering
Committee Member Ahmed Gaya at or 773-960-2587.



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Thank you for your consideration of this important matter. We look forward to your prompt
reply, and trust you share our concerns about environmental hazards at the facility.


Paul Wright
Executive Director, Human Rights Defense Center

Seattle Councilmember & President Bruce Harrell
Seattle Councilmember Tim Burgess
Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien
Seattle Councilmember Sally Bagshaw
Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant
Seattle Councilmember Lorena González
Seattle Councilmember Rob Johnson
Seattle Councilmember Debora Juarez
Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold
Nathan Torgelson, Director of Construction and Inspections