Proposed Half-a-Billion Dollar Federal Prison Plan in East Kentucky Not a Done Deal

Comment Period on Environmental Review Forced Back Open by Concerns from Local Residents, Environmentalists and Prisoner Rights Advocates

Whitesburg, KY — On Friday April 1st, 2016, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced that it was forced to re-open a public comment period for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on a maximum security federal prison in Letcher County after facing multiple shortcomings, including violations of public notice requirements, in its “Final EIS” released last July. A 30-day window is now open on a Revised Final EIS.

In December of last year, Congress approved an additional $444 million for the BOP to construct a new prison in the County, specifically ear-marking funds in January for a contested site in Roxana on a former mountaintop removal coal mine which is surrounded by forests containing endangered species habitat. The latest congressional appropriation is on top of an initial $16 million secured with this site in mind site as far back as 2006. The estimated preliminary cost of construction is $460 – 510 million.

The owners of the proposed site, Meade And Shepherd Coal Company, have been long-time supporters of Kentucky’s U.S. Representative Hal Rogers, who has been the major proponent of this prison, and is also the head of House Committee on Appropriations.

Despite the release of more than 6000 pages of additional documents, the BOP’s Revised Final EIS still does not appear to address the most critical issues raised in extensive comments on the previous drafts of the EIS, which were submitted by groups including the Human Rights Defense Center, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Center for Biological Diversity and Abolitionist Law Center. Among the issues raised are little or no assessment of:

  • Health risks to prisoners associated with active coal mines and sludge impoundments within 1.5 miles;
  • Alternatives to incarceration or changes to BOP population projections based on sentencing reforms;
  • Race/income demographics of prison populations which would trigger the required Environmental Justice review; and
  • Impacts to wildlife in the Lilley Cornett Woods, an old-growth forest used as a biological research station by Eastern Kentucky University approx. 1 mile to the south, and other neighboring properties.
Mitch Whitaker is a master falconer who runs the raptor rehabilitation program for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Office in Letcher County. Photo: Shawn Poynter Mitch next to an old oak on his forested property that could be lost to prison construction.
Mitch Whitaker is a master falconer who runs the raptor rehabilitation program for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Office in Letcher County. Photo: Shawn Poynter
The other photo is Mitch next to an old oak on his forested property that could be lost to prison construction.

A landowner whose property would be directly affected by this prison, Mitch Whitaker, noted such impacts in an April 1st op-ed to the Lexington Herald, “My story is a parable of the choices Eastern Kentuckians face in this period of economic transition. Will we honor the natural history and environmental assets of the region by preserving sites like this?”

Panagioti Tsolkas of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons says, “Proponents of this prison have been making construction out to be inevitable, despite the fatal flaws in their EIS and changes in prison policy that could render the facility an unnecessary tax burden. Having to re-open this comment period shows that this is not a done deal.”

Tsolkas also states he is concerned with the integrity of the public relations firm Cardno hired by the BOP. The company has been removed from other controversial EIS proceedings, such as the Keystone XL pipeline project, where they were forced to step down from conducting the environmental review due to a financial conflict of interest.

He says that the following statement by Cardno from a newly-released appendix of the Revised Final EIS for Letcher does not inspire confidence:

Cardno has not attempted to verify the accuracy or completeness of such information [other agency documents, historic materials, etc] , and makes no warranty as to such for information not generated by Cardno in this investigation.

The 30-day review period ends on May 2, 2016. Questions or comments can be mailed to: Issac Gaston, BOP Site Selection Specialist, 320 First Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20534 or e-mailed to igaston@bop.gov.storylink=cpy

The Revised Final EIS is currently available at www.fbopletchercountyeis.com.

The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons is a newly-formed grassroots organization focused on addressing impacts of prisons on ecology and environmental health. For more info visit: FightToxicPrisons.org

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