After Republican Congressman Hal Rogers inserted language into the latest House appropriations bill which would bypass environmental regulatory processes related to the building of a $500 million federal prison in Letcher County, environmental experts say clearing the region’s old-growth forest to build the prison would permanently degrade the environment and increase the likelihood of severe flood damage.
Julia Finch, Kentucky chapter director for the Sierra Club, said construction of the 1,400-bed facility and prison camp would remove natural flood buffers, leaving the landscape unstable and communities at heightened risk.
“The footprint of USP Letcher is approximately 570 acres,” Finch pointed out. “According to our research, it requires clear-cutting of over 120 acres of forest habitat, and that’s where those endangered species live. Also, excavating and grading an additional 59 acres, destroying wetlands, and building an entirely new wastewater utility in the region.”
Section 219 of the bill strips federal courts of jurisdiction to hear any legal challenges to the prison’s construction, including those brought under federal environmental protection laws. Supporters of the project argued the prison would help boost the local tax base and strengthen the workforce.
Research shows former coal mine sites leach arsenic and radon, which could pose public health risks for incarcerated people and correctional staff.
Tom Sexton, organizer for the Kentucky chapter of the Sierra Club, said it remains an open question whether former coal mine sites are safe in the long term for any kind of repurposing.
“But I think before we get too far down the road on those kinds of conversations, I think it behooves us to accurately assess how safely these sites can be accessed and be occupied by people,” Sexton contended.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, hundreds of prisons nationwide are built on or near toxic sites, and in many, incarcerated people and staff have been exposed to contaminated water and pesticides.
Written by Nadia Ramlagan for Kentucky News Service.