EPA Adds Prison Locations to Its Environmental Justice Mapping Tool
By Zoe Loftus-Farren
As an environmental reporter, it's not every day that I get to communicate good news—the state of our environment often feels pretty bleak. But today, at least, there is a victory to celebrate: Thanks to the persistence of a small group of prison ecology advocates, the support of their allies, and the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prisoners rights and environmental justice advocates have a new tool to add to their activist arsenal.
This summer, the EPA added a "prisons layer" to its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. Known as EJSCREEN for short, the tool can be used by the public to assess possible exposure to pollutants that might be present in the environment (i.e., land, air and water) where they live or work.
The new layer allows the public to overlay the locations of the country's 6,000-plus prisons, jails and detention centers with information about environmental hazards like superfund and hazardous waste sites, something the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center has been pushing for as part of its campaign for the EPA to consider prisoners within an environmental justice context. For the prison ecology movement, which addresses issues at the intersection of mass incarceration and environmental degradation, it could be a game changer.
"It's huge," said Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center. "It's one of those things that I think if you just look at it quickly, it seems almost mundane to have added a layer to this existing map. And in the absence of a movement present to actually use it for something, it could be meaningless…. But in the presence of what we've been doing over the last three years, of building this national movement and organizing model of looking at prisons from an environmental justice perspective … this is pretty massive."
The Prison Ecology Project was thinking of creating it's own map in the absence of an EPA version. And during our own reporting on toxic prisons earlier this year, Earth Island Journal and Truthout attempted to create a map of prisons and superfund sites across the country, but were stymied by a lack of adequate mapping tools.
Tsolkas thinks the tool will prove valuable in the fight against new prison projects. Prisons are often built on marginal lands that, after having been mined, logged or otherwise contaminated, may not be seen as suitable for any other use. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a subdivision division of the U.S. Department of Justice, doesn't typically address the impact of prison-siting decisions on the health of prisoners when completing federally mandated environmental impact statements (EIS).
That was originally the case with the proposed construction of a maximum-security prison atop a former mountaintop-removal coal-mining site in Letcher County, Kentucky. The BOP's initial environmental impact statement for the project didn't mention the potential environmental impacts—like mining-related pollution and water contamination—on the estimated 1,200 people who would be held at the prison if it were built. A revised EIS released earlier this year (following extensive comments by groups like the HRDC and the Center for Biological Diversity), mentions some of the health implications for prisoners, but does not provide a robust discussion of the impacts. According to HRDC, this EIS may represent the only example of an environmental review in which the BOP has made any mention of prisoner health. The final EIS for the new prison is still pending. (Read more about the status of the Letcher County proposal).
Tsolkas said that the new EJSCREEN prison layer implicitly endorses HRDC's contention that the BOP must consider prisoner health when evaluating the Letcher County project, and others like it.
"What the BOP has been saying is that they basically have no reason, no mandate, nothing that points them to have to look at environmental justice concerns related to prisons," Tsolkas said. "And having the EPA include prisons on the EJSCREEN basically implies the opposite, that federal agencies now need to look at prison populations when they're considering the placement of industrial facilities including prisons themselves."
The new prison layer may also give prison ecology advocates the edge they need to go on the offensive. "Instead of reacting to abuses in existing prisons or responding to proposals for new prisons, we can actually initiate campaigns, and say, 'Hey, this overpopulated prison has documented issues with x, y, and x.," Tsolkas explained. "So we can create campaigns basically using the EJSCREEN tool."
Tsolkas said he'd like "to give a shout-out to the folks at the environmental justice office of the EPA" for making the prison layer a reality. But he'd still like to see more from the agency, especially in the form of a robust national prison-inspection program.
Such a program is not without precedent. The EPA's Region III office—which covers the Mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, DC—used to run a "prisons initiative" to improve environmental compliance at prisons and jails across the region. Under the imitative, which ended in 2011, the EPA conducted inspections at prisons, and engaged in outreach and training work.
In a written statement, the agency said it ended the prisons initiative because it "felt prisons in the Mid-Atlantic region were able to ensure environmental regulation compliance by themselves." It seems, however, that there is still room for improvement: A recent investigation by Earth Island Journal and Truthout found that mass incarceration impacts the health of prisoners, prison-adjacent communities, and local ecosystems across the U.S.
"It shouldn't be like pulling teeth," Tsolkas said, referring to the difficultly of getting EPA inspectors out to prisons. "We have hundreds of letters from prisoners across the country saying the water is dirty. It shouldn't take that much to get an EPA representative to go…. They have a key to get into the prisons that most of us don't have short of visitation and breaking laws."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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