LA BELLE, Pa. — When the State Correctional Institute at Fayette opened its doors in 2003, it was to replace and consolidate two nearby prisons into one streamlined, modern incarceration campus 45 miles south of Pittsburgh in Fayette County.
The prison is located on an old strip-mining site in Western Pennsylvania’s coal fields adjacent to a dump for fly ash, the powdery residue left over from coal combustion. The property is owned by Matt Canestrale Contracting, but First Energy is one of the largest customers.
Since the prison’s opening adjacent to the long-time dump, cancers and other assorted illnesses that are rare among the general population have become statistically — and significantly — higher among inmates at SCI Fayette.
Watchdog group the Abolitionist Law Center conducted a 12-month investigation into the health impacts of fly ash on inmates at La Belle, a tiny town nestled at the bottom of a hill in a bend in the Monongahela River. Their findings showed that 81 percent of the inmates suffer from some sort of respiratory distress, including sores, cysts and tumors in the nose, mouth and throat.
Sixty-eight percent of responding prisoners experienced gastrointestinal problems, including heart burn, stomach pains, diarrhea, ulcers, ulcerative colitis, bloody stools, and vomiting. Fifty-two percent reported experiencing adverse skin conditions, including painful rashes, hives, cysts, and abscesses.
“Prisoners had no idea what was going on with the hill across the yard from them,” said Dustin McDaniel, the director of the Abolitionist Law Center. They were first notified by a prisoner’s letter alerting them to the deteriorating conditions inside SCI Fayette.
“Since my transfer to this facility on Feb. 14, 2012, I’ve had to endure numerous medical problems: rashes throughout my body that hurt and keep me up all night. Extreme swelling of various parts including my throat making it difficult to breathe. My face would swell, and pictures were taken showing the condition of my eyes. And my vision still has not returned fully to them. I have required emergency medical treatment eight times due to the swelling of my face and throat,” inmate Marcos Santos told the Center.
In many ways, McDaniel said, the inmate illnesses at La Belle are not surprising.
“The practice of putting a prison on brownfields or on otherwise environmentally poisonous lands is not unusual. The way the prison system and construction process works is that people that are being put in these prisons are considered ‘garbage.’ We are just going to put them in there and forget about them. That is something that happens all across the country,” he said.
I’ve had to endure numerous medical problems: rashes throughout my body that hurt and keep me up all night. Extreme swelling of various parts including my throat making it difficult to breathe. My face would swell, and pictures were taken showing the condition of my eyes.
inmate, SCI Fayette
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections released a statement last year saying it had tested the water supply at the facility and reviewed prisoners’ medical records and cancer rates. “Our review found no scientific data to support claims of any unsafe environmental conditions or any related medical issues to exist at SCI Fayette,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.
Attempts by Al Jazeera to get an updated statement from the DOC were not responded to this week. The fly ash dump operator, Matt Canestrale Contracting, has declined to speak publicly about the problems, citing possible litigation.
But what is not in doubt is that the fly ash coats the town of La Belle with a fine dust. So everyone in town is exposed, along with the prisoners.
“There are times when it seems like you were in the Sahara Desert. If I go out for an extended period of time and there is a breeze, my eyes burn like crazy,” said Sonny Markish, 78. He has the dubious distinction of living closer to the fly ash dump in La Belle than anyone.
“Just about every year I have to buy new lawn furniture because it is all crappy. It even gets in my fruit, I have apple trees and whenever the apples are ripe they get salt-like grains embedded in them, only they are black,” Markish said, adding his apples have been tested revealing lead, mercury, and arsenic.
“I have had three kinds of cancer (lung, colon, prostate); my wife had part of her right kidney removed … the early death rate around here is phenomenal,” Markish said.
So why not leave?
“Why should I move? Their stuff is invading me, it is fugitive dust from their property,” Markish said.
In that sense Markish has sympathy for the approximately 2,000 prisoners housed in SCI Fayette.
“I know those people have done something wrong or they wouldn’t be there, but Christ, all of those people don’t have a death sentence. But they can’t get out of the prison,” Markish says. But then again, neither can many of La Belle’s residents leave. One prison has walls, the other doesn’t, but they are prisoners just the same.
“I own two properties here and I would probably have to give them away on 10 cents on the dollar. … I am 78, by the time I would get rid of them and find a place in the country, I’d be a 104 years old,” Markish said.
“We are a small community and that is why we were chosen for the fly ash. We don’t have $500,000 homes, and no one here is independently wealthy. So they just shit all over us and get away with it,” Markish said.
Eric Garland, 43, is currently a guard inside the prison and also lives just about a mile and a half from the ash dump.
“I do know of prison guards who have retired that have contracted kidney cancer, a not very common cancer that can linked to the consumption of cadmium and arsenic,” Garland said.
“In 2009 I came down with hypothyroidism, which can be attributed to the absorption of fly ash and heavy metals. The medicine I take helps it, but I worry about cancer a good bit,” Garland said.
‘We are a small community and that is why we were chosen for the fly ash. We don’t have $500,000 homes, and no one here is independently wealthy.’
resident, La Belle
So, why does Garland work in a place that may slowly be killing him?
“It is simple: this is southwest Pennsylvania and well-paying jobs with benefits are pretty hard to come by,” Garland said, adding that he has the option of early retirement at 50, so he is just trying to make it until then.
So even the guards at the prisons are in some ways prisoners themselves.
The state is investigating the issues around the prison and the fly ash dump hasn’t been used in a couple of years. But the dust still swirls around town and First Energy has been seeking permission to resume dumping.
In the meantime, McDaniel believes there is only one option. “The prison needs to be closed down, that’s the only equitable solution.”
That, of course, would help the prisoners, while doing nothing to alleviate the health risks posed to the residents of LaBelle.