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U.S. Scraps Prison Plan for Abandoned Coal Mine

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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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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

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"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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