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.



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: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/document/915870/monthly_population_pdf.

[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.