Quantcast

U.S. Scraps Prison Plan for Abandoned Coal Mine

Popular
picture-alliance / AP Images / D. Goldman

By Daniel Moattar

Eastern Kentucky's hills are interrupted by jarring flats of bare rock: the aftermath of mountaintop removal mining, which uses explosives to destroy and harvest coal-rich peaks.


These hills are also home to four federal prisons — and until this week, an abandoned mountaintop mine in Letcher County, Kentucky, was expected to house a fifth.

This week, 21 federal prisoners who had sued the bureau over the site's alleged health hazards won a surprise victory when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) abruptly pulled out of the proposed 1,200-bed penitentiary.

The plaintiffs — who are serving sentences ranging from one year to life imprisonment, and are incarcerated across the U.S. on charges including firearm and drug possession — argued in the suit that the site had been inadequately tested, that it was likely unsafe, and that the BOP had violated federal environmental laws by failing to notify them before making its decision.

Mountaintop removal is associated with a wide range of illnesses, including pneumonia, bronchitis, leukemia and tumors of the lung and trachea.

The Obama administration had considered using stimulus money to pay for tree planting on former surface coal mines.

Imago Images / Zumapress

In an email to DW, a BOP spokesperson said more analysis was needed to address "environmental concerns," and declined to discuss the lawsuit's role in its decision.

Debbie Chizewer, the Montgomery Foundation Environmental Law Fellow at Northwestern University, called the decision a "victory for common sense" and a "recognition of the serious environmental and economic concerns" raised by the plan's opponents.

Chizewer said state agencies sometimes "end up merely checking the box, rather than taking a meaningful or substantive analysis" of environmental impacts and health risks.

Prisoner and Forest Health

The suit was filed in November by 14 prisoners and public-interest law firm the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC). In April, the complaint was updated to include seven other prisoner-plaintiffs and local conservationists Friends of the Lilley Cornett Woods.

The Lilley Cornett Woods is a forest preserve near the planned prison site, which is home to three species of endangered bats. The group argues on its website and in legal filings that the proposal to build the prison endangered the forest with pollution, traffic and "massive quantities of sewage and cleaning chemicals."

Central Appalachian forests like the Lilley Cornett Woods are among the world's most biodiverse and threatened, according to a 2010 New York Times report.

Dustin McDaniel, ALC's executive director, believes the case is likely the first environmental lawsuit brought by incarcerated people, the first jointly filed by federal prisoners and local conservationists and the first in which U.S. prisoners have sued to prevent construction of a new facility.

"The failure, on the part of the BOP, to perform the required environmental justice analysis was a blatant attempt to circumvent the law at inmates' expense," wrote Robert Black, who is incarcerated at a medium-security prison in Colorado, in communications shared by the Abolitionist Law Center.

Mountains of Coal

Eastern Kentucky, home to about 750,000 residents, has a remarkable four federal prisons — 13 times the average for an area its size. All were built between 1992 to 2005 in hopes of offsetting the loss of coal industry jobs that once powered this region.

The area's rate of labor force participation is 45 percent, about two-thirds the U.S. average. It now has fewer coal jobs than at any time since 1898.

Mountaintop removal has been a boon for mine operators, but generates less employment than conventional mining, and takes a harsher toll on surroundings.

Operators detonate mountaintops and shunt the millions of tons of debris into neighboring valleys, forming flat plots like the planned prison site.

This so-called "valley fill," which can include toxins such as arsenic and selenium, runs "a high risk of contaminating public water supplies," said Alan Lockwood, a neurologist and coal expert with Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Streams and rivers run through many valleys in Appalachia, the mountainous region where Letcher County is located. Valley fill from decades of past mining now covers thousands of kilometers of Appalachian waterways.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tests of the proposed site found acceptable levels of heavy metals and water acidification, but "insufficient" cleanup of leaking natural gas equipment, and arsenic "well above" regional screening levels, the agency's standard for safe long-term exposure.

The decline of coal has badly hit Kentucky's economy, and destroyed Appalachian mountaintops.

Imago Images / Zumapress

Prisons on Waste Sites


The planned prison is not the first to raise environmental concerns. One 2017 analysis, based on work by cartographer Paige Williams, found that more than 130 U.S. prisons lie within 1.6 kilometers (about 1 mile) of a Superfund site, areas with hazardous waste or pollution severe enough to require federal government intervention.

A further 600 are within 5 kilometers of such sites, and an unknown number of others sit on abandoned mines or dumps.

Another Eastern Kentucky prison, USP Big Sandy, is located in a strip mining area, and at least two prisons in neighboring Southwest Virginia are on mountaintop removal sites.

Public health studies indicate that residents of mountaintop removal areas suffer higher rates of medical conditions, from clinical depression to tooth loss.

They live shorter lives than those living near conventional coalfields — up to 1.5 years shorter on average — are more likely to suffer birth defects and suffer from heart disease and cancer.

Exploring Green Alternatives

In place of prisons, some nearby coal-mining communities are eyeing environmentally friendly uses for abandoned mines.

In nearby Pike County, the state government has backed a plan to build a 100-megawatt solar farm, Kentucky's largest ever, on mountaintop mine lands. And a wind-power study of a mountaintop removal site in neighboring West Virginia found it could generate enough power to supply 70,000 homes.

Though the Bureau of Prisons could restart the testing process, and attempt to develop the site again, advocates and opponents believe that's unlikely to happen.

It's been rare for environmental activists to successfully influence major government decisions in Donald Trump's White House. But Black and his fellow plaintiffs have gone some way to demonstrating the growing reach of the U.S. environmental movement, whose activists are increasingly linking questions of emissions and energy to racial and criminal justice.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Deutsche Welle.

Related Articles Around the Web
    From Your Site Articles

    EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

    Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on May 29, 2012. MANDEL NGAN / AFP / GettyImages

    John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion granting environmental agencies the power to regulate greenhouse gases, died Tuesday at the age of 99. His decision gave the U.S. government important legal tools for fighting the climate crisis.

    Read More Show Less
    EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signs the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule on June 19, replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that would have reduced coal-fired plant carbon emissions. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency / Twitter

    By Elliott Negin

    On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The following day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.

    Read More Show Less
    Sponsored
    Golde Wallingford submitted this photo of "Pure Joy" to EcoWatch's first photo contest. Golde Wallingford

    EcoWatch is pleased to announce our third photo contest!

    Read More Show Less
    A timber sale in the Kaibab National Forest. Dyan Bone / Forest Service / Southwestern Region / Kaibab National Forest

    By Tara Lohan

    If you're a lover of wilderness, wildlife, the American West and the public lands on which they all depend, then journalist Christopher Ketcham's new book is required — if depressing — reading.

    Read More Show Less
    Somalians fight against hunger and lack of water due to drought as Turkish Ambassador to Somalia, Olgan Bekar (not seen) visits the a camp near the Mogadishu's rural side in Somalia on March 25, 2017. Sadak Mohamed / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

    World hunger is on the rise for the third consecutive year after decades of decline, a new United Nations (UN) report says. The climate crisis ranks alongside conflict as the top cause of food shortages that force more than 821 million people worldwide to experience chronic hunger. That number includes more than 150 million children whose growth is stunted due to a lack of food.

    Read More Show Less
    Sponsored
    Eduardo Velev cools off in the spray of a fire hydrant during a heatwave on July 1, 2018 in Philadelphia. Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

    By Adrienne L. Hollis

    Because extreme heat is one of the deadliest weather hazards we currently face, Union of Concerned Scientist's Killer Heat Report for the U.S. is the most important document I have read. It is a veritable wake up call for all of us. It is timely, eye-opening, transparent and factual and it deals with the stark reality of our future if we do not make changes quickly (think yesterday). It is important to ensure that we all understand it. Here are 10 terms that really help drive home the messages in the heat report and help us understand the ramifications of inaction.

    Read More Show Less
    Senator Graham returns after playing a round of golf with Trump on Oct. 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Ron Sachs – Pool / Getty Images

    Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Senate Republican who has been a close ally of Donald Trump, did not mince words last week on the climate crisis and what he thinks the president needs to do about it.

    Read More Show Less
    A small Bermuda cedar tree sits atop a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. todaycouldbe / iStock / Getty Images Plus

    By Marlene Cimons

    Kyle Rosenblad was hiking a steep mountain on the island of Maui in the summer of 2015 when he noticed a ruggedly beautiful tree species scattered around the landscape. Curious, and wondering what they were, he took some photographs and showed them to a friend. They were Bermuda cedars, a species native to the island of Bermuda, first planted on Maui in the early 1900s.

    Read More Show Less