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Prison Drinking Water and Wastewater Pollution Threaten Environmental Safety Nationwide

By John E. Dannenberg - Prison Legal News, November 15, 2017

Aging infrastructure concerns are not limited to America's highways, bridges and dams. Today, crumbling, overcrowded prisons and jails nationwide are bursting at the seams -- literally -- leaking environmentally dangerous effluents not just inside prisons, but also into local rivers, water tables and community water supplies. Because prisons are inherently detested and ignored institutions, the hidden menace of pollution from them has stayed below the radar. In this report, PLN exposes the magnitude and extent of the problem from data collected over the past several years from seventeen states.

Alabama

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has been ignoring complaints of wastewater pollution from its prisons since 1991. Back then, the problem was limited to leaking sewage from the St. Clair prison. Although the Alabama Legislature promised to provide the $2.3 million needed to build a new wastewater treatment plant that would match St. Clair's vastly expanded population, no money has been appropriated.

Today, the problem has grown statewide and includes pollution from ADOC's Draper, Elmore, Fountain/Holman, Limestone prisons and the Farcquhar Cattle Ranch and Red Eagle Honor Farm. The problem has drawn the ire of the private watchdog group, Black Warrior Riverkeeper (BWR) and of the state Attorney General (AG), both of whom have filed lawsuits against ADOC. The AG's office claims ADOC is violating the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act (Act) by dumping raw sewage into Little Canoe Creek, from which it flows into the Coosa River. The AG has demanded that ADOC fix the problems and pay fines for the damage they have caused. All parties acknowledge that the problems stem from ADOC's doubling of its population to 28,000, while the wastewater treatment facilities were designed for less than half that number.

The environmental damage is huge. ADOC is pumping extremely high levels of toxic ammonia, fecal coliform, viruses, and parasites into local streams and rivers. When raw sewage hits clean water, it sucks up the available dissolved oxygen to aid decomposition. But in so doing, it asphyxiates aquatic plants and animals that depend on that oxygen.
Telltale disaster signs include rising water temperatures and the appearance of algae blooms. The pollution renders public waterways unfit for human recreation as well.

BWR notes in its suit that Donaldson State Prison has committed 1,060 violations of the Clean Water Act since 1999, dumping raw sewage into Big Branch and Valley creeks, and thence into the Black Warrior River. BWR seeks fines for the violations, which could range from $100 to $25,000 each. Peak overflows were documented at 808,000 gallons in just one day, which isn't surprising for a wastewater treatment plant designed to handle a maximum of 270,000 gallons per day. Donaldson, designed to hold only 990 prisoners, has 1,500 today.

One path to reformation was found in turning over wastewater treatment to privately-run local community water treatment districts. Donaldson came into compliance with its wastewater permit after contracting with Alabama Utility Services in 2005. Limestone and other ADOC prisons are now seeking privatization solutions.

Critical Gulf: The Vital importance of ending new fossil fuel leases in the Gulf of Mexico

By various - Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Bold Louisiana, August 2016

As this report was going to press, a massive storm caused unprecedented flooding in Louisiana, destroying tens of thousands of homes and killing at least 11 people. Thousands of others were forced to evacuate. This is exactly the kind of extreme weather projected to become more severe on the Gulf Coast as the climate crisis intensifies.

And that’s what this report is about: the necessity of a rapid and just transition to clean energy to reduce this terrifying threat to the Gulf Coast. We must begin by stopping new fossil fuel leasing in the Gulf of Mexico to prevent offshore drilling and fracking that could ultimately contribute nearly 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to global warming.

“Climate change is never going to announce itself by name. But this is what we should expect it to look like,” was the first line of a New York Times story about the flood. Indeed climate scientists and meteorologists are linking the Louisiana deluge to a series of extreme floods caused by climate change in the United States over the past two years.

The link between burning fossil fuels and heavy rains is clear and direct. Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, which warms our atmosphere. “As the atmosphere warms, so does the ocean,” climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe explained in a recent Facebook post about the Louisiana flooding. “Evaporation speeds up, making more water available for a storm to pick up and dump as it sweeps through.”

The National Weather Service in New Orleans measured record levels of moisture in the air during this storm. More than two feet of rain fell on Baton Rouge and southern Louisiana in under 48 hours, sending most of the region’s rivers over their banks on Aug. 17 and flooding thousands of homes. That deluge was the result of a low-pressure storm system that stalled off the coast and kept sucking more moisture from the unusually warm Gulf waters, which will only grow warmer over time.

It’s high time the communities of the Gulf Coast cease to be treated as sacrifice zones. They deserve environmental justice and a clean energy future. Turning away from fossil fuel extraction in the Gulf will allow them to weather future storms, help end our dangerous collective reliance on fossil fuels, and dramatically reduce hazards for future generations.

Read the report (PDF).

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