February 10, 2015 – The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) have launched a comprehensive health survey of prisoners at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette. The prison sits next to a 500-acre coal ash dump operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting. Prisoners, current and former guards, and nearby residents have reported a range of illnesses and symptoms that are consistent with exposure to toxic coal waste, raising concerns that the dump may be making people sick. The prison is also serviced by Tri-County Joint Municipal Water Authority, which has reported levels of cancer-causing Total Tri-halomethanes (TTHMs) in their water supply above the EPA Maximum Contaminant Level for the past several years.
The groups will send the 8-page survey by mail to all of the more than 2,000 prisoners at SCI Fayette. Prisoners will be asked to complete the survey and return it by mail. The Department of Corrections (DOC) has been notified of the survey and reminded of its responsibility to comply with constitutional standards that prohibit censorship of mail sent to prisoners.
Meanwhile, a grassroots community group, with support from the Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), will be conducting a similar survey in the town of LaBelle. The town, which has about 300 residents, sits on the other side of the dump from the prison. Many people there also report chronic illnesses that are consistent with exposure to toxic coal waste.
“This survey of both residents of LaBelle and incarcerated people will provide a better picture of health problems in the immediate area around the dump, something which has not been done before,” said Eva Westheimer, community organizer with CCJ.
ALC and HRC conducted a preliminary survey of 75 prisoners last year, which revealed high rates of respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, and skin conditions among prisoners responding to the survey. These findings were published in a report entitled No Escape, in September of 2014. In response to this report, the DOC conducted its own review of prisoner medical records and published a two-page press release on New Years Eve 2014, summarizing its findings and denying any problems or wrongdoing.
The DOC’s press release reported that rates of cancer, respiratory, and gastrointestinal diseases between 2010 and 2013 were not above average, when compared to other prisons under DOC management. The press release included no mention of many of the health conditions discussed in No Escape, nor did it discuss any attempts to test the grounds of the prison for the presence of coal ash, or to account for undiagnosed or untreated conditions among prisoners, which could only be captured by a comprehensive health survey.
At the same time, DOC has refused to make the data from its review public, denying several Right-to-Know requests submitted by ALC and HRC, as well as journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Herald-Standard. “What we do know about the DOC’s review is that it was a very narrow study designed to deny and dismiss the existence of a problem at SCI Fayette. How can we trust the Department to objectively determine if there is a problem, when it has every interest in that problem not existing, and when it repeatedly acts in bad faith by obstructing access to public records,” said ALC attorney Dustin McDaniel. “Many people living next to this dump both in prison and in the community are sick. What we don’t know is how many people and the extent to which they are suffering from the same problems. With this survey, prisoner advocates and community leaders are working together to find out.”