Report Points to Fly Ash Pollution in Prisoner Health Complaints

  • Some prisoners blame their cancers and respiratory illnesses on pollution from a nearby fly ash dump. Photo: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

September 5, 2014

Some inmates and workers at a Pennsylvania state prison are blaming their cancers and respiratory illnesses on pollution from industrial toxic waste. A nearby dump is filled with fly ash, leftover from coal-fired power plants And the prison itself is built on a site where coal was processed. A new report by two social justice groups highlights complaints from the State Correctional Institution Fayette in LaBelle, Pa.

The report by the Abolitionist Law Center and Human Rights Coalition, catalogues dozens of health complaints—sometimes in graphic detail. Of the inmates who responded to the groups’ survey, 81 percent say they suffer from respiratory and sinus conditions. Those range  from chronic coughing to tumors in their noses, mouths, and throats. 

"People are going there healthy and getting symptoms after they arrive," says Ben Fiorillo, an author of the report.


Other prisoners have thyroid issues, gastrointestinal disorders and cancer. Lee Ulery was a guard at the prison until last year. He was only 44 when he started feeling pain in his right side a couple of years ago. Ulery was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and says he knows other guards at the prison with the same type of cancer.

"That’s the only thing we have in common, the water we drink and the air we breathe," Ulery says. "And I think one of those two is the reason we have so many sick people."Ulery says when he started working at the prison in 2004, he didn’t know that fly ash containing hazardous metals like mercury, lead and arsenic were being dumped nearby. Or that the prison itself was on a brownfield.

Environmental groups and residents of LaBelle have complained for years about black grit blowing off the dump site—a phenomenon many prisoners have witnessed.

The authors of the recent report say their sample size is too small to draw definitive conclusions. But they’re calling for further studies. They say if a correlation is found between the illnesses and the fly ash, conditions at the prison might be unconstitutional and it should be closed. Spokeswoman Susan McNaughton says the state’s Corrections Department is reviewing the report.