Surrounded by “about 40 million tons of waste, two coal slurry ponds, and millions of cubic yards of coal combustion waste,” State Correctional Institution (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 (MCC), which currently operates a coal ash dump bordering 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.
An 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 also reported high rates of breathing problems and cancer, and have been calling for the coal ash dump to be shut down.
On September 30, 2013, ALC filed a comment with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) protesting the renewal of MCC’s permit to dump coal ash at the site. On July 14, 2014 DEP sent notice that MCC’s permit had been renewed, granting it the right to transport and dump 416,000 tons of coal ash at the site. However, MCC has reportedly entered into a “long-term agreement” with FirstEnergy to receive “more than 3 million tons of coal ash and smokestack scrubber waste each year,” and dump it at the Labelle site beginning in 2017. The agreement allows FirstEnergy to dispose of ash that would have gone to the Little Blue Run dump in Beaver County, which was recently ordered to close due to the health threat it poses to nearby residents. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is granting a permit to Alpha PA to build a new coal terminal at the Labelle Dock, while DEP has announced its intent to increase the permitted coal throughput of the facility from 3,500,000 tons per year to 10,000,000 tons per year. Alpha PA is a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources, which was recently assessed a record fine of $227,500,000 for seven years of illegally discharging pollutants into the waters of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
On September 2, 2014, Abolitionist Law Center, together with the Human Rights Coalition, released a report entitled, No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette. The report represents the preliminary findings of a year-long investigation into the health impacts of exposure to coal waste at the prison, and reveals alarming rates of illnesses consistent with exposure to coal ash. 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: “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.”