Opposition to Prison Is an Environmental Fight in Appalachia

A proposed federal prison slated for a mountaintop coal removal site is a losing deal for human health, the local community, and wildlife.
Mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nrdc_media/2964384391/

A proposed federal prison has become the focus of opposition for advocates concerned about the project's most notable feature: it’s slated for a mountaintop coal removal site.

Coal companies mine by mountaintop removal predominately in the central Appalachian Mountains, which consists of parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. To access the coal seams, forest cover is completely cleared on the mountaintop and then explosive charges are detonated to break through the surface. Mining debris is bulldozed over the side of the mountain, often into streams below. Hundreds of mountains have been leveled for coal mining in Kentucky alone. 

Studies show that the health of residents suffers in mountaintop mining counties. For example, researchers have concluded that mountaintop mining areas are associated with more days of poor physical and mental health, even when compared with people living near other forms of mining. This includes increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.  

In late 2015, Congress earmarked $444 million for the Bureau of Prisons to build the Letcher County Penitentiary and Federal Prison Camp. According to the most recent proposal prepared by the Bureau of Prisons under its National Environmental Policy Act obligations, the plan is to acquire nearly 800 acres to construct and operate the correctional facility. It is expected to house more than 1,200 prisoners.

Human health is at the center of the advocacy opposing the Letcher County prison. As raised by nonprofit civil rights and environmental organizations like the Human Rights Defense CenterKentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Center for Biological Diversity and others in comments on the proposal, the site is at risk for drinking water quality problems. Reports on the Letcher County water district that will supply the prison have found high levels of fecal coliform bacteria and hepatitis A, and identified water quality in the area as being threatened by mining activities, oil and gas wells, plus untreated sewage. In general, water bodies downstream from reclaimed mining sites in Appalachia are associated with degraded quality from increased concentrations of selenium, sulfate, and magnesium pollution. 

The Bureau of Prisons also failed to consider environmental justice, rejecting the likelihood that the people housed in the prison will predominantly be low-income people of color. Yet people of color are disproportionately represented in federal prisons around the country. For example, the Bureau of Prisons identifies more than 37 percent of its current population as black, when only 14 percent of all people in the U.S. identified themselves as black in the last census

In addition to concerns about the health of individuals who will work and be detained at the prison, there are threats to the biologically diverse forests of southern Appalachia, which provide vital wildlife habitat for endangered species, mitigate flooding, and of course, sequester carbon dioxide. The Bureau of Prisons' most recent plan for the project includes clearing 121 acres of forest adjacent to the landscape already deforested by mining, resulting in the permanent loss of that habitat for two species of bats that are listed as endangered and threatened. 

Finally, crucial to the proposal is the promise made by government officials that the prison will create economic growth in Letcher County, providing hundreds of employment opportunities for residents. Study after study, however, has disproven the well-worn claim that prisons provide economic benefits to local areas. In fact, in struggling rural communities, researchers have found that prison construction actually impedes economic development, with prison towns experiencing greater population loss and higher rates of poverty over time. Over the course of the environmental review process, residents opposed to the proposed prison launched the #our444million campaign to solicit proposals for alternative uses of the federal dollars that would better support the community in its pursuit of a just transition away from coal and prisons in Appalachia. Suggestions for alternatives collected on social media have included programs to support local small businesses, drug rehabilitation facilities, and even the designation of a national park to generate tourism revenue.

The opportunity to influence the outcome is still underway. The Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Ecology Project is collecting online comments to the Bureau of Prisons through May 8th.

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