U.S. Scraps Prison Plan for Abandoned Coal Mine
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.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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