MEDIA RELEASE: Prisoners and Activists Stop New Prison on Coal Mine Site in Kentucky

For Immediate Release
June 20, 2019
Contact: Marianne Cufone, Green Justice, (813) 785-8386

Prisoners and Activists Stop New Prison on Coal Mine Site in Kentucky

Washington, DC — In response to a federal lawsuit filed by Green Justice attorneys, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) withdrew its intent to construct a new $510 million federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky, the most expensive proposed federal prison in U.S. history. The lawyers represented prisoners and activists concerned about the new facility being sited on a former mountaintop removal coal mine and near an active mine and coal sludge pond.

Marianne Cufone, lead attorney with Green Justice, said, “The lawsuit highlighted that both the process and actual building of the USP Letcher facility conflicted with various federal laws. The Bureau of Prisons did the right thing in withdrawing its construction plans.”

Twenty-one federal prisoners from around the country, the Abolitionist Law Center and Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods and North Fork River Watershed brought the lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons. The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons supported the plaintiffs in their case with a grassroots organizing campaign, which garnered support across the country.

“This outcome couldn’t have happened without the courage of local residents in Letcher County and federal prisoners, all who risked significant blow back for standing up to oppose this prison,” according to co-founder of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, Panagioti Tsolkas.

“Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new prison makes no sense with the substantial decreases in the federal prison population over the last several years,” said Dustin McDaniel, Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “We hope the BOP’s action ends this prison project permanently, and that it also signifies a turning point nationally, away from investing money in prison construction, and toward increased investment in communities devastated by mass incarceration.”

One of the prisoner-plaintiffs, Jason Palacios agreed with McDaniel, “Spend money to rehabilitate–NOT incarcerate.”

The initial lawsuit was filed by attorney Emily Posner in 2018, after more than three years of a controversial environmental impact analysis process. She said, “Some proponents of the new prison speculate that this withdrawal is temporary, but that seems misguided, given the many problems with the project. In these times of climate uncertainty, this is not the type of federal investment needed, funds should be used to create meaningful and sustainable economic opportunities for the people of southeastern Kentucky.”

In April 2019, Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods, whose individual members have long opposed the prison due to its likely impacts on surrounding natural areas and threatened and endangered species, joined together to participate in the case. The amended complaint can be found here.

Elvenia Blair said, “This prison would have threatened the health and well-being of inmates, correctional workers and our already fragile environment, including habitat for several endangered bat species. I am so relieved this project is not moving forward.”

Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. ALC is a plaintiff in Barroca v. Bureau of Prisons and has participated in every NEPA public comment period related to the proposed prison in Letcher County, KY.

Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons conducts grassroots organizing, advocacy and direct action to challenge the prison system which puts prisoners at risk of dangerous environmental conditions, as well as impacting surrounding communities and ecosystems by their construction and operation.

Friends of Lilley Cornett Woods and North Fork River Watershed – exists for the purpose of conserving and strengthening the environmental integrity of Letcher County and the human and natural environments of the broader Appalachian region by fighting against the exploitation of natural resources and marginalized communities, and advocating for an economy based on a just transition away from resource extraction and prison construction. FOLCW is not affiliated with Eastern Kentucky University or its Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Research Station.

Green Justice – is a virtual law firm that connects independent lawyers with special expertise and law students nationwide, to collectively work cases that defend people, wildlife and habitats from injustices in the natural and built environments.

Media Release: Prisoners File Lawsuit Against New Federal Facility on Toxic Strip Mine Site in Kentucky

For Immediate Release 11/27/18

Image of USP Letcher proximity to slurry and LCW old-growth biological research station managed by Eastern Kentucky University


Emily Posner, Attorney for Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, (207) 930-5232

Prisoners File Lawsuit Against New Federal Facility on Toxic Strip Mine Site in Kentucky


Washington, DC — Lawyers with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and have filed a federal environmental lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) representing prisoners from across the country who say they were not properly informed about $444 million dollar plans to construct a new federal prison on top of a former coal mine, next to an active mine and coal sludge pond, which could house them in the near future.

Twenty-one prisoners are listed as plaintiffs, along with the ALC. The complete court filing can be found here. Pictures from the lawsuit and the prison site here.

The lawsuit comes after more than three years of a controversial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process conducted by the BOP and the consulting firm, Cardno. Public comments submitted by attorney Emily Posner in 2017 on behalf of the ALC can be found here.

The lawsuit states that federal prisoners should have been considered as parties with legally-required access to EIS documents, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The EIS process outlines a wide range of social and environmental impacts, including potential health risks and alternatives to construction, which prisoners are uniquely situated to provide insight on and particularly vulnerable to the results stemming from the final EIS approval which occurred earlier this year.

The prisoners are asking the courts to halt progress on the plan until they have received access to documents for review and comment.

Map of active coal sites near USP Letcher proposal

One prisoner listed on the lawsuit, Manuel Gauna, stated: “I believe that construction of this particular prison is neglecting the people in Letcher and the people in the prison system. We as prisoners should have had the opportunity to participate in this public comment period for this project. Correctional officers are overworked at my facility [FCI Mendota]. I wish that the BOP would spend the money that it wants to use to build a new prison to properly staff this prison.”

Another prisoner named in the suit, Mark Jordan, currently at USP Tucson, explained, “Just last week President Trump publicly announced his support for the FIRST STEP Act, a reform bill aimed at reducing the federal prison population. The Letcher County project flies directly in the face of this reform narrative.”

Jordan continues, “Despite serious environmental and health hazards, the Justice Department solicited public comment from everyone except those most directly impacted by the project, the prisoners themselves. Health and safety issues aside, this is but a needless pork barrel project ushered through by Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers at a time when public opinion and policy-makers are trying to reduce the population of the federal prison system, not build more prisons merely for the sake of building more prisons.”

Prisoners aren’t the only ones concerned about the facility. Letcher County resident Elvenia Blair, who lives close the proposed prison, is also opposed to the plan.

Blair, who has been contesting the prison for several years, states that “Eastern Kentucky has the highest cancer rate in the nation. Forcing prisoners, correctional officers and their families to live, work and visit this environment is discrimination.”

Blair is also a board member of Friends of the Lilley Cornett Woods and North Fork Watershed, one of multiple local organizations which have expressed concerns about the impact of prison construction.

She continues, “With coal mining on its way out, the natural history of our mountains and wildlife is what we have left to attract people to the area. That will be disturbed with barbed wire, shooting ranges, heavy traffic flow of transporting prisoners. We won’t see economic growth from this.”

Emily Posner, Attorney for the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, also notes, “Federal legislation indicates a downward trend in prison population. My clients are in agreement with local residents who feel that there are much better ways to generate federal support in Appalachian communities than wasting hundreds of millions on an unnecessary prison.”


Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race based mass incarceration in the United States. ALC has participated in every NEPA public comment period related to BOP’s proposed prison in Letcher County, KY.

Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons conducts grassroots organizing, advocacy and direct action to challenge the prison system which puts prisoners at risk of dangerous environmental conditions, as well as impacting surrounding communities and ecosystems by their construction and operation.

Voices from the Inside: George Dalie on Environmental Justice at SCI Fayette

SCI Fayette and MCC's Coal Ash Dump, Google Earth 2014
SCI Fayette and MCC’s Coal Ash Dump, Google Earth 2014

Pieces of Me Gone

By Georgie “Big Georgie” Dalie (HC-9826 at SCI Greene)

Recently, I read an article entitled “Pollution Prison in Pennsylvania,” written by comrade Mumia Abu-Jamal (Prison Legal News vol. 26, no. 6, June 2015 issue, p. 60). The article was about the Fayette State Correctional Institution and the prisoners there being exposed to toxic coal waste (Fly Ash).

I was previously incarcerated at the Fayette institution from February 2011 until February 2013. During my time there, I was both a witness to and victim of the toxic environment. On so many mornings I remember leaving my housing unit (C-Block B-side) en route to the Facility dining hall, at which time I would witness a dusty substance that was very thick and made it difficult to see any farther than nine to twelve feet in any direction. I would eat the morning meal, then return to the housing unit. Before locking into my assigned prison cell, I would have to shake out my clothing to remove the same dusty substance. It would be all over the floor in front of the cell and I would have to clean it up with toilet tissue.

On those same mornings someone from the facility Deputy’s complex would get on the PA system and announce that due to “FOG ALERT” all outdoor recreation was canceled for the morning. I always had an issue with the fog alert claim because I would watch the local news and weather stations religiously and none of them had reported any fog in their forecasts. Prisoners would not receive outdoor recreation until after 1:00 PM on “Fog Alert” days.

When I would finally get to the Main Yard the sun would be shining and the dusty substance clouding the air earlier would then be settled on the grass and racetrack. That stuff would get all caked up on your boots and the bottom of your pants legs. Within a weeks time of purchasing some new kicks (sneakers or boots) and wearing them in the main yard the stitching would start to give way and then your kicks would fall apart.

Then came the issue with the water. One of my comrades had warned me one evening that I should always run the sink water in my cell for at least twenty minutes before drinking it because staff and prisoners had been getting sick from a black substance turning up in it. I ran my sink for twenty minutes with a white cloth pressed on the faucet out of curiosity. When I finally pulled the cloth away and took a look at it, I did witness dark particles caked up on the cloth.

One evening during “Block-Out” (Open Dayroom where prisoners congregate to watch TV, use the phone, or play board games) I was in the staff hallway searching the game shelf for the Connect Four set when I witnessed a Department Directive posted to the staff bathroom door that directed all staff to refrain from consuming the facility’s tap water and that the electronic spring water system located in the hallway was for staff. I can only speculate as to why Fayette administrators would issue such directions to staff and not to prisoners also.

In 2012, I discovered thick, hard, shiny, grey, scabby spots appearing all over my body and inside my mouth. The spots on my body burned and itched severely and if I scratched or picked at them they would erupt and bleed. Soap, lotion, water, and even movement caused irritation and discomfort. The spots inside of my mouth were ulcerated and would cause a burning sensation that was difficult just to bear. No matter what I would eat: hot, cold, spicy, or mild, my mouth would be on fire.

In 2013, one of the scabby areas on my neck became so bad that I signed an agreement to allow medical staff to perform a biopsy on the affected area of my neck. The area was numbed via injection and a specimen (a nice size chunk of flesh from my neck) was severed (cut) from the affected area and sent to a lab for diagnostic study and/or evaluation. I agreed to the biopsy because I thought it would help medical staff figure out what was (and still is) wrong with me.

However, when the test results came back, I was told by the Physicians Assistant (PA) that I had something called “Lichen Planus.” She said it’s my fault that I have it and that it was from scratching. I informed the PA that I only scratched an area on my thigh once and that I never did it again because of the pain and bleeding I experienced. She became angry and began to yell at me, stating, “You did this to yourself.” I didn’t understand her anger so I didn’t say anything else. She prescribed me a steroid cream that only helped with the pain. She also told me that I would be stuck with “Lichen” for the rest of my life because there was no treatment for it.

Also in 2013, the ulcerated areas in my mouth became so out of control that the oral surgeon was called in to surgically remove pieces of flesh from my tongue and from the floor of my mouth under my tongue. This took place one day before I was transferred to S.C.I. Greene. (The surgery was done on February, 25, 2013 and I was transferred on the 26th.) The surgery was a failure and about a week after the ulcerated spots started to spread from the right side of my mouth to the left. Large puss bubbles began to grow in the hinges of my jaw and the back of my throat. At night the puss bubbles sometimes get in the way of my breathing and cause me to wake up. I keep a plastic spoon close by so that I can use the back of it to pop them quickly. Also, my mouth had to be stitched up after the surgery, which was extremely painful.

The whole experience was and still is traumatizing. My body is scarred for life now and I had pieces of me cut away that I can never get back. S.C.I. Greene has stopped my steroid cream and will no longer even respond to requests for medical care for my alleged “Lichen Planus.” Back when I first got here I was seen by the oral surgeon (not the same one as at Fayette). I asked him if what I had could turn cancerous. The guy became so nervous he dropped a tray of surgical tools. I never got answers to my question.

I believe that my injuries are a result of being exposed to toxic coal waste at S.C.I. Fayette. I believe that the administrators at S.C.I. Fayette, their medical staff, and government officials know/knew that the toxic environment is harming and killing prisoners.

Why else would they spend millions to pull up all of the institution’s drinking water pipes and hang them on the buildings? According to reports I’ve heard from some of my comrades, the pipes were removed because the ones that were put in by the original contractors were allegedly made of a material that could not withstand the weight of the buildings, so they were replaced with more suitable ones. This makes no sense to me, and even if it were true, that doesn’t explain why the pipes are now hanging on the housing units instead of being put back underground. And why did they dig up the pipes that are going outside the security fence? Those pipes were not under the buildings. If you take a tour of the institution, you’ll see large beams holding up the pipes and they are everywhere. When I used to have to go to the main yard, I had to travel under a large bridge of pipes.

I think the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) and Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) need to look into that because I believe the D.O.C. knew something was up and that they pulled those pipes in an attempt to hide the prisoners’ exposure to the toxic coal waste dump that they built the institution on. I had no other recourse, I had to drink the institution’s tap water and I had to breathe the air there also. The administration didn’t issue me directions not to drink the tap water, nor did they provide me an alternative water source like they did for the staff.

To all of you reading this: How would you feel if you were in my shoes? What if you had to allow nurses and surgeons to cut flesh from your mouth and neck? What if one of us (prisoners currently or previously at S.C.I. Fayette) were your father, brother, uncle, or son? Will you help us to hold those responsible accountable for their deliberate indifference? Or will you not speak out because you’re not now, have never been, and don’t plan on ever being in prison? If that’s how you feel, then let me give you a lesson about apathy.

An early supporter of Hitler during his rise to power, Martin Niemöller later came to oppose the Nazi regime. Niemöller’s status in the world of the wealthy and powerful saved him until 1937 when he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s. His poem “First They Came” can teach us a lot about the consequences of apathy:

“First they came for the communists﹣but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the socialists and the trade unionists﹣but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews ﹣but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out.

And when they came for me there was no one left to speak out for me.”

If you’re not doing anything to save those who need saving right now, then who will be around to do the saving when it is your tongue, your mouth, or your neck that’s getting hacked at? Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

And I say we should stand up, stand together, stand firm, and fight the unjust exposure of prisoners to toxic coal waste at S.C.I. Fayette. And let’s not forget the families in LaBelle who are suffering from exposure also.



MEDIA RELEASE: As Department of Corrections refuses to release information about prisoner health, human rights groups, LaBelle residents launch health survey of their own

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.”




Dustin McDaniel                           412-651-7485


Eva Westheimer                                      724-229-3550

MEDIA RELEASE: State Office of Open Records orders PA Department of Corrections to release prisoner and staff health record at SCI Fayette

Legal victory for journalists’ investigation into prison surrounded by toxic coal ash dump

December 16, 2014 – The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has ordered the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) to produce documents pertaining to prisoner health at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette to two journalists. The records were sought via Right-to-Know requests filed after the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) and the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) issued a report detailing a year-long investigation into the health impacts of exposure to coal waste at SCI Fayette, which is surrounded by 40 million tons of waste, two coal slurry ponds, and millions of cubic yards of coal combustion waste. Report at this link: No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette.

Following the release of the ALC/HRC report, the DOC announced that Secretary John Wetzel had ordered the DOC to cooperate with the state Department of Health in investigating prisoner health at SCI Fayette.

On December 1, 2014, the Office of Open Records granted an appeal [Herald Standard v. PADOC] by Christine Haines and the Herald Standard newspaper, ordering the PADOC to produce “documentation of illnesses contracted by inmates and/or staff members at SCI-Fayette.” Although the PADOC cited 8 grounds for concealing the information, the OOR decision found that they failed to establish that any of them applied to the records sought. The DOC’s argument that the records were exempt from disclosure due to their being part of an ongoing, non-criminal investigation was rejected by the decision, which held that a “one-time inquiry” by an agency is not part of that agency’s official duties.

On December 8, 2014, the OOR granted in part and denied in part an appeal by Don Hopey and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Pgh Post Gazette v. PADOC]. The DOC was ordered to produce records and communications pertaining to the coal waste and coal ash site, and it potential or actual impact on air, water, and land pollution, as well as its link to prisoner or staff health. The decision exempted the DOC from producing records pertaining to staff health and environmental assessments completed prior to the construction of SCI Fayette due to the DOC alleging that it was not in possession of any such records.

The DOC has 30 days to comply with each decision or to file appeals in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court as well.

Given the DOC’s representations to the OOR, it is questionable how thorough or probing these records will be when released. In the Post-Gazette decision, the reasons and scope of the DOC’s alleged investigation appear to be based on a misstatement of the findings of the ALC/HRC report:

[DOC Bureau of Health Care Director Christoper] Oppman states the Human Rights Coalition alleged that there is an increased incidence of cancer deaths among SCI-Fayette inmates, especially lung cancer, and that these deaths are based on the proximity of SCI-Fayette to the Canestrale Contracting Co. coal waste and coal ash landfill. Director Oppman further states that based on these allegations, the Department conducted an investigation to determine whether there was a higher incidence of inmate cancer deaths at SCI-Fayette than at other State Correctional Institutions. Director Oppman goes on to state that the results of this investigation were provided to the Pennsylvania Department of Health (“Department of Health”) for its own investigation.

Contrary to Director Oppman’s statement, however, the report detailed a range of health problems linked to exposure to toxic coal waste beyond cases of cancer, and made no finding that lung cancer deaths were “especially” increased:

Over the past year, more and more prisoners have reported declining health, revealing a pattern of symptomatic clusters consistent with exposure to toxic coal waste: respiratory, throat and sinus conditions; skin irritation and rashes; gastrointestinal tract problems; pre-cancerous growths and cancer; thyroid disorders; other symptoms such as eye irritation, blurred vision, headaches, dizziness, hair loss, weight loss, fatigue, and loss of mental focus and concentration. (No Escape, p. 1)

The report also carefully acknowledged the preliminary nature of its findings, emphasizing the need for further investigation:

Our investigation leads us to believe that the declining health of prisoners at SCI Fayette is indeed caused by the toxic environment surrounding the prison; however, the inherent limitations of the survey do not establish this belief at an empirical level. A substantial mobilization of resources for continued investigation will be required to confirm the relationship between prisoner health and pollution from coal refuse and ash. (No Escape, 2)

. . .

As previously mentioned, the inherent limitations of the survey make it impossible to empirically show that prisoners at SCI-Fayette are getting sick at an unusually high rate or that these illnesses are caused by pollution from the dump. (No Escape, 20)

In response to Oppman’s characterization of the report’s findings, ALC staff attorney, Dustin McDaniel, stated:

“This blatant mischaracterization of our findings calls into question the integrity and purpose of any inquiry by the DOC into prisoner health. Seeking to discredit a report by disproving a claim that was never made, and ignoring the actual claims appears designed to cover-up rather than uncover the extent and cause of the alarming patterns of health problems our investigation found.”

The Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition are continuing to investigate health problems at SCI Fayette. Since the September publication of No Escape, we have received substantial reports from prisoners and their family members that further corroborate the patterns identified in the report.

Support ALC’s Environmental Justice Work – Give Now and Your Donation Will Be Doubled!

A generous donor has offered a matching pledge in response to the report the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) recently released with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC), which uncovered a hidden health crisis at a Pennsylvania prison built in the midst of a toxic coal waste dump. If you give today your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to $1,000.

On September 2nd, ALC and HRC released the report No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette. The report was covered on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, picked up by Reuters and the New York Times online, and has spurred the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to launch inquiries into the health of staff and prisoners at SCI Fayette.

If this pledge is matched, then we will have raised $2,000 to support our ongoing investigation of environmental pollution and related health effects at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette. These funds will also contribute to our advocacy efforts on behalf of prisoners like Nicholas Morrissey, who is suffering from severe neurological symptoms potentially related to coal ash exposure.

Please consider giving a donation today – and help us move forward on this rapidly expanding project. Donations may be made via PayPal, by mailing checks to P.O. Box 8654, Pittsburgh, PA 15221, or to our Bitcoin wallet at 16TvNewZsFDPKiBAUB5A3oHD5a1WcwK19J

Many Thanks,

Abolitionist Law Center


Press Coverage of No Escape

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Groups say fly ash near state prison in Fayette County causing health problems

State, corrections union investigate health at prisons by coal sites


Report blames coal ash for cancers at Pennsylvania prison

Prison Radio:

No Escape (Toxic Exposure at SCI Fayette) by Mumia Abu-Jamal


Report alleges link between fly ash, health problems at SCI-Fayette

KQV radio:

Report Finds Disturbing Pattern of Illnesses at State Prison


40 Million Tons Of Toxic Coal Waste Sit Next To Prison With ‘Alarming Rates Of Illness’

Allegheny Front:

Report Points to Fly Ash Pollution in Prisoner Health Complaints

Action Alert – Demand transfer and medical treatment for prisoner locked up next to toxic coal ash dump

Nicholas Morrissey and his daughter before his illness
Nicholas Morrissey and his daughter before his illness

Nicholas Morrissey #HL6873 is a prisoner at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette who is suffering from debilitating neurological problems for which he has been refused evaluation and treatment by prison medical staff.  SCI Fayette is located next to a massive coal ash dump in Southwestern PA, as documented in the recent report No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institute Fayette

Nick has been locked up at SCI Fayette since 2008.  Last year, he began to experience a number of debilitating health problems.  He writes, “One day I woke up and it was difficult for me to walk and see… I started getting dizzy and I couldn’t keep my balance and I started getting a numbing feeling in the left side of my body.” He quickly developed more symptoms:  tingling sensations and muscle spasm, loss of mechanical function in his arms and legs, memory loss, hair falling out, and extreme weight loss.

Take action today: Call and request that the PA Department of Corrections:

1) Transfer Nicholas Morrissey from SCI Fayette due to the risk that his health problems are being caused or made worse by the coal waste dump; and

2) Provide Nick with immediate diagnostic care by a specialist outside the prison, including an MRI.


SCI Fayette Superintendent Brian Coleman: 724-364-2200

PADOC Secretary John Wetzel: 717-728-4109

Background information:

“My life has completely changed in the last year.  I went from an athletic and healthy person, to a frail sickly man who can barely walk.” -Nicholas Morrissey

Early this year, after a series of blood tests, Nick was diagnosed with and began being treated for hyperthyroidism.  With treatment, Nick’s thyroid levels returned to normal, but most of his symptoms persisted or worsened.  The cognitive problems, muscle spasms, and temporary loss of function in his arms, legs and face, became more severe, leaving him unable to walk or get out of bed on many days.

Despite the persistence of these debilitating symptoms the prison’s medical department has refused to perform further evaluation or take him to an outside specialist for diagnostic care.  He has been told by medical staff that his symptoms are in his “imagination” and that he needs to “man up.”  He writes, “When I told the doctor that it was difficult for me to walk and that I couldn’t control my body anymore, I was kicked out of his office and threatened with being sent to the hole.”  Nick has filed several grievances in response to the neglect and intimidation exhibited by medical staff, all of which have been dismissed.  He and his family are concerned that his declining health is related to the massive coal waste dump surrounding the prison.

Talking points for phone calls to the Department of Corrections:

  • If you are calling Secretary Wetzel, ask for Secretary Wetzel’s office.  If you are calling SCI-Fayette, ask for Superintendent Coleman’s office. You will be transferred to an assistant in one these offices. Please make calls to both offices.
  • Tell them you are calling about Nick Morrissey #HL6873, a prisoner at SCI Fayette who is experiencing neurological problems including severe muscle spasms, loss of motor function, and memory loss.
  • Explain that Nick has been diagnosed and treated for hyperthyroidism, but his symptoms have persisted and cannot be explained by his thyroid problems.  Medical staff have refused further evaluation and diagnostic testing to determine the cause of his symptoms and have exhibited willful neglect toward his illness.
  • Tell them you are aware that SCI Fayette sits next to a large coal ash dump and that the Human Rights Coalition and the Abolitionist Law Center recently released a report which demonstrates that prisoners are at risk of exposure to pollution from the site. Tell them you are concerned that Nick Morrissey’s health problems could be related to the pollution from the dump.

Request that SCI Fayette:

  • Transfer Nicholas Morrissey from SCI Fayette immediately, due to the risk that his health problems are being caused or made worse by the coal waste dump
  • Provide Nick with immediate, in-person, diagnostic care by a specialist outside the prison, including an MRI.

Report finds disturbing pattern of illnesses at Southwestern PA prison surrounded by coal ash dump

Abolitionist Law Center and Human Rights Coalition release report detailing health problems at SCI Fayette

Contact: Ben Fiorillo                                        412-482-0041

September 2, 2014: Pittsburgh, PA – Abolitionist Law Center and the Human Rights Coalition have released a report entitled, No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette, based on a year-long investigation into the health impacts of exposure to coal waste at the state prison in Fayette County, PA. The report reveals alarming rates of illnesses consistent with exposure to coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal in power plants.

No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution FayetteSurrounded by “about 40 million tons of waste, two coal slurry ponds, and millions of cubic yards of coal combustion waste,” SCI Fayette is inescapably situated in the midst of a massive toxic waste dump. The prison was built on part of a Coal Refuse Deposit Area owned by Matt Canestrale Contracting, which currently operates a coal ash dump directly adjacent to the prison. Before Matt Canestrale Contracting took it over, the land was a dumping ground for coal waste from one of the world’s largest coal processing plants.

The investigation was launched in August of 2013 by Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), the Human Rights Coalition, and The Center for Coalfield Justice, after receiving reports of high rates of illnesses at SCI Fayette. Prisoners reported a number of overlapping symptoms and diseases, including chronic sore throats, extreme throat swelling, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, vision problems, stomach pain, and sores, cysts, and tumors in their mouths, noses, and throats, as well as on their skin. Many prisoners reported being diagnosed with thyroid disorders or cancer after arriving at SCI Fayette. Residents of the nearby town of LaBelle, PA have also reported high rates of breathing problems and cancer, and have been calling for the coal ash dump to be shut down.

“No Escape” represents the preliminary findings of the investigation, and more research is needed to better understand both the risks posed by the dump and the nature of prisoners’ health problems. Nonetheless, these preliminary findings raise legal questions about the location of the prison. According to the report, “Situating a prison in the midst of a massive toxic coal waste dump may be impermissible under the Constitution if it is shown that prisoners face a substantial risk of serious harm caused by exposure to pollutants from the dump.” ALC attorney Dustin McDaniel put it this way, “If the patterns of illnesses we’re seeing at SCI-Fayette are indeed related to pollution from the dump, then this prison should be shut down.”

ALC Protests Coal Ash Pollution at SCI Fayette

SCI Fayette and surrounding coal ash site
SCI Fayette and surrounding coal ash site

September 30, 2013



In the August 31, 2013 edition of the Pennsylvania Bulletin, the Department of Environmental Protection published a Notice of Intent to Issue Operating Permit 26-00057 for the Matt Canestrale Contracting, Inc. Labelle Site. This permit covers a barge unloading and transferring operation associated with a reclamation area in Luzerne Township, Fayette County. At this site, coal ash and FGD sludge are used as capping material on a coal refuse pile. In accordance with 25 Pa Code §§ 127.426 and 127.428, the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) herein files a timely protest and request for public hearing within 30 days of the publication of the Notice of Intent to Issue the Operating Permit.


The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) is a Pennsylvania-based, not-for-profit corporation, certified by the Internal Revenue Service as a §501(c)(3) charity. ALC provides legal services to Pennsylvania prisoners and engages in educational and organizing work around injustice in the criminal legal and prison systems. We work closely with prisoners, their family members, and human rights defenders in advocating for the enforcement of international human rights standards in Pennsylvania prisons.

The State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette is located in LaBelle, Pennsylvania, and is within less than 500 feet from the LaBelle Site. As of August 31, 2013, SCI Fayette held 2,022 prisoners. State prisoners are by far the largest population group in the town of LaBelle, PA, and they are also the least considered. A sentence to prison does not – and should never – entail a person being subjected to carcinogenic living conditions.

The LaBelle Site is a 500 acre dump is located on top of the hill between the small community of LaBelle and SCI Fayette. SCI Fayette is practically surrounded by the dump, to the north, east, and south. Much of the prison facility lies just 500 feet from the dump boundary. The dump has been operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting LLC (MCC) since 1998, prior to the construction of SCIFayette in 2003. Previously the dump was the site of the largest coal preparation plant in the world operated by J&L Steel, which processed coal from nearby mines. Around 31.5 million tons of waste from processing coal were dumped at this site before it became a coal ash dump. The prep plant eventually closed in the mid-90s.

When MCC, the current operator, acquired the property it signed an agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to “reclaim” the site and was given permission to dump coal ash as part of it’s reclamation plan. DEP says that this is a “beneficial use” of coal ash which will improve soil and water quality at the site. Under this agreement MCC was expected to close the dump. However, MCC has continued to operate well beyond the planned closure date and recently announced plans to begin accepting coal ash from an additional power plant starting in 2017.

The dump has been routinely in violation of state laws including the Clean Streams Law, Air Pollution Control Act, and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act; as well as federal laws including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; and the Clean Air Act. Despite this history of violations, DEP is considering renewing three permits for the site: the Coal Refuse Disposal Area (CRDA) permit, the Air Quality Operating permit and the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

On June 13, 2013 the DEP held a hearing to take public comments on the Coal Refuse Disposal Area (CRDA) permit in which dozens of residents demanded that the site be shut down. Public comments and hearings are expected in the coming weeks and months regarding other permit renewals. Despite being much larger than the population of LaBelle, the prisoner population has never been included in the public participation process.

ALC believes that the failure to consider the impact of this site on the prisoner population represents a grave oversight that poses a threat of severe harm to an already vulnerable population. Coal ash contains many chemicals that are toxic to humans including arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and selenium. The most likely form of exposure to these toxins is by breathing in dust from the site. Ash is routinely seen blowing off of the dump and out of the trucks that carry it. Black dust, presumably from the site, accumulates on houses in the town of Labelle as well as on the prison grounds. The chemicals in coal ash can cause or contribute to many serious health conditions including: skin, eye, nose and throat irritation; asthma; emphysema; hypertension; anemia; heart problems; nervous system damage; brain damage; liver damage; stomach and intestinal ulcers; and many forms of cancer including skin, stomach, lung, urinary tract, and kidney cancers

We understand that many residents of LaBelle suffer from headaches, fatigue, respiratory problems, kidney failure, and several forms of cancer. We have heard reports that some prisoners are already experiencing serious health problems potentially caused by exposure to toxic coal ash.

The ALC is aware of the human rights crisis inside of Pennsylvania prisons, which is currently the only state prison system ever to be under investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Illnesses that are handled with ease outside of the prisons can often become far more complicated and harmful inside these institutions. Prisons have limited budgets and staff to provide health care, and the antagonistic relationship between prison staff and prisoners often leads to further inadequacies in care.

During the past several years, we have learned of a consistent pattern of human rights violations inside of Pennsylvania prisons, including dozens of documented incidents at SCI Fayette. We know how readily prison authorities will hide inconvenient evidence of substandard conditions, neglect, and mistreatment.

For the above reasons, ALC has initiated a fact-gathering effort regarding this matter in collaboration with the Human Rights Coalition, a statewide organization of prisoners, their families, and human rights defenders. We are concerned that state prisoners are being ignored in regard to this issue despite their being the most impacted population in the region. This situation is intolerable and un-democratic, and has no place in a society that values health and human rights.

Given the absence of any consideration of the LaBelle Site’s impact on prisoners, the preliminary reports we have received regarding serious harms to prisoners health, the history of regulatory noncompliance, and recent reports of continuing non-compliance, the ALC strongly opposes renewal of the Air Quality State Only Operating Permit.


Pursuant to 25 Pa. Code § 127.428, ALC requests a public hearing for air quality Operating Permit 26-00057. In addition, as the LaBelle Site is being treated as an Environmental Justice area, the Department must follow the lead of the Office of Environmental Advocate and require the appropriate heightened public participation requirements and permit review scrutiny. We request that the public hearing be held in a location convenient for the residents in and around LaBelle, such as the LaBelle/Luzerne Fire Hall, and at a time in the evening that enables those who work to attend and share their concerns.


As demonstrated above and in other submissions presented in this matter, MCC has failed to follow legally-required protocol, posing an extraordinary risk to human health. We urge the Department to deny the renewal application for the reasons stated above. The ALC strongly opposes renewal of the Air Quality State Only Operating Permit, and will continue to pursue this matter to ensure that the human rights of prisoners are not ignored.


[1] Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Monthly Population Report As Of August 31, 2013, page 1, accessed at:

[2] 25 Pa. Code §127.422.

[3] 25 Pa. Code § 123.2; 25 Pa. Code § 123.1(a)(9).

[4] 25 Pa. Code § 127.

[5] Nicholas J. Waryanka, Air Pollution Control Engineer, Air Quality Program, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, “Review of Application for Plan Approval Coal Refuse Reprocessing Facility, Matt Canestrale Contracting, LaBelle Site, Luzerne Township, Fayette County,” July 8, 1998.