Prison Ecology Project

The mission of the Prison Ecology Project is to map the intersections of mass incarceration and environmental degradation, and create action plans to address the multitude of problems found there.

The Prison Ecology Project addresses issues such as: damage of sewage and industrial waste from overpopulated and under-regulated prisons into to water ways; threats to listed species by the ongoing construction and operation of prisons in remote, environmentally-sensitive rural areas; and environmental justice concerns regarding prisoners, staff and surrounding communities.

Check out our partners at The Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons


Greenwashing Washington State’s Prison System in a River of Sewage

Aug 1, 2015 | by admin

This article represents an environmental epidemic among prisons nationwide, and indicates exactly why “the greenest prison is an empty one” … The cache of state records obtained by the Human Rights Defense Center here reveals that roughly half-a-million gallons of sewage water and other contaminates have been dumped from the Monroe prison’s wastewater system over the last eight years, polluting rivers and wetlands in the Puget Sound watershed.

Greenwashing: When an agency or company spends more on marketing and public relations to promote the perception they are environmentally conscious than they spend on implementing environmentally conscious practices and policies.

In 2005, embarking on a new-found interest in creating more environmentally friendly prisons, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) built what it claimed was the nation’s first correctional building to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold rating. There was a lot of back patting and official ring kissing. The 10,000-square-foot Jimmie Evans Training Center at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) north of Seattle includes prisoner classrooms and a computer lab. Built to conserve energy, the training center featured waterless urinals and a rainwater system used to flush low-flow toilets. Almost a century old, the prison was going green and this time it wasn’t from moss.

LEEDing the Way… With Solitary Confinement

The Monroe complex, which houses 2,400 male prisoners in separate reformatory, mental health, sex offender and minimum-security units, also got a new LEED-certified maintenance building that year. It was built with recycled construction materials and relied on more natural lighting from windows and skylights. The following year, 2006, prisoners received some green attention. A new 200-bed, $40 million Intensive Management/Segregation Unit was built with recycled materials and featured rainwater-powered toilets. It was the department’s first Silver LEED-certified building to house prisoners.

In an April 2008 Prison Legal News story about the new unit, writer Matt Clarke reported that, rain-fed toilets or not, IMU prisoners were still being “locked in their 8-by-12-foot cells 24-hours a day, with a nominal one hour of ‘recreation’ outside the cell five days a week. They are allowed 15-minute showers three times a week. Prisoners are observed 24 hours a day from an elevated, hi-tech control room and the 172 security cameras, placed throughout the 77,000-square-foot building. Prisoners are limited to six months in the segregation unit, but can stay in IMU indefinitely.”

The new lockup looked spiffy. But did the trendy new building do anything to aid reform or curb recidivism? Noting that Allison Parker, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, described solitary confinement as “cruel and unusual punishment,” Clarke observed that, all in all, “The greenest prison is an empty one.”

Washington corrections leaders and other state officials nonetheless celebrated their new Gold and Silver LEED rankings, the first steps in what became part of a $500 million expansion program. Altogether, dozens of other buildings were greened at Washington prisons over four years.

Yet, despite the chest-pounding – the Seattle Times hailed it as “Green Revolution” – officials weren’t saying much about another environmental development at Monroe: While they were attempting to improve the light and air within the prison, they were mucking up the earth and water outside.

Quietly, they were struggling to prevent hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewer water from chronically spilling into wetland ecosystems and the nearby pristine Skykomish River, whose icy headwaters collect high in the Cascade Mountains. In 2006 – the year the new IMU opened – the prison discharged an estimated 5,000 gallons of sewage into the river. A pump had failed, cause unknown. It was the beginning of what has now become a tired variation of an old musical refrain: “A Seepy Lagoon….”

Sewage in the Skykomish

A pair of vintage sewage lagoons at MCC were going from bad to worse. In 2007 the lagoons were flooded by rain and began to overflow, which forced the prison to unplug an abandoned discharge line so the flow could divert into the Skykomish. An estimated 16,000 gallons of sewage water dumped into the river over at least two days. By 2012, the deteriorating lagoons had developed into a disaster waiting to happen, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE). A report from that year, obtained by Prison Legal News and written by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, Ecology’s Water Quality Section Manager, said a dike separating the sewage lagoons from agricultural land and the Skykomish River “is at risk of failure. A dike failure could potentially release millions of gallons of untreated wastewater.”

Working on the water main at MCC... But not the sewage treatment system.
Asked recently by PLN how serious this now-three-year-old dam-bursting threat was, Ecology spokesperson Larry Altose stated, “These concerns continue,” adding that the DOC is seeking funds for a lagoon-replacement project that would address them. “Ecology’s Dam Safety Office visited the site in 2003,” he said in an email. “The report from that inspection is attached. Dam Safety ranked it as a low hazard. This means that even though the dam is under Ecology jurisdiction, it does not require our five-year inspections.”

But the provided explanation conflicts with other Ecology statements. The report on the 2003 lagoon inspection preceded the 2012 warning by more than a decade, and said officials made only a “superficial” review of the three-acre main lagoon. Heavy sewage settles and undergoes pre-treatment there before being sent to the City of Monroe wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). Even superficially, inspectors found “that erosion has likely created an almost vertical cut along the upstream slope and reservoir rim.” The erosion was likely caused by wave action, a lack of erosion protection and poorly compacted earth.

Inspectors recommended short- and long-term fixes and said they couldn’t be sure whether the lagoon was leaking in some spots because brush and undergrowth prevented visual inspection. A future lagoon failure was indeed given a low-level ranking, but that was based on the likelihood that the hundreds of thousands of gallons of free-flowing waste would gush into a pasture and then the Skykomish without harming any buildings or people directly. The report didn’t say what such a break would do to the river. Nor did it predict whether the threat of failure could increase in the next dozen years. However, a separate 2012 DOE PowerPoint presentation discussing a lagoon replacement did: “Pretreatment lagoon dikes determined to be unsafe by Dam Safety,” it said without dispute.

According to state records, a steady series of waste spills and environmental screw ups at MCC date back to at least the late 1990s. Presumably, the main prison – a reformatory that opened in 1908 with 11 officers and 30 prisoners – has a typical history of spills and toxic dumping during its century of operations, most of it predating environmental-protection awareness. The modern day problem is that, while DOC officials are readily aware of current threats, they have yet to resolve them.

Records Reveal Washington DOC’s Chronic Environmental Problems

The cache of state records obtained by PLN’s parent operation, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), reveals that roughly half-a-million gallons of sewage water and other contaminates have been negligently dumped or accidentally spilled from the Monroe prison’s wastewater system over the last eight years, polluting rivers and wetlands. There has been no clear assessment of the damage this has caused, and where it could lead. But the systemic breakdowns and human negligence include a nearly 400,000-gallon spill in 2012. Caused by an effluent pump failure, the spill went undiscovered for almost four days while nobody was minding the wastewater helm.

The state DOE has regularly investigated the spills, assessed the damage and issued warnings or notices of violations to the DOC, though it has not levied any sizeable fines. Under then-Governor Daniel Evans, Washington in 1970 was the first state to create a Department of Ecology – preceding the launch of the federal Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon later that year – and has earned respect as a model agency. The DOE hasn’t in the past shied from taking swift action when the DOC resorts to covering up or ignoring its environmental failures.

In 2004, Ecology fined the DOC $60,000 for falsifying water pollution reports. That took place at the old federal prison-turned state prison, McNeil Island Corrections Center, which was shut down in 2011 after operating for 136 years. From 1999 to 2002, 20 of 36 water pollution reports were falsified by the DOC in an attempt to cover up excess fecal coliform levels contained in the 350,000 gallons of wastewater discharged daily by McNeil into Puget Sound. Across the mountains at Walla Walla State Penitentiary, the DOC regularly ignored violations of air and water pollution. It indiscriminately dumped waste and discharged chemicals into storm drains. As a result, inspectors found the discharges were affecting 17 groundwater wells serving 10,000 citizens; the DOE also determined the prison was discharging toxic metal waste, including mercury, at 100 times the permitted level. The DOC policy then, however, was to pay the fines rather than fix the problems.

In recent years, Ecology seems to have been reluctant to come down too hard on its fellow state agency. As Marietta Sharp, a DOE bio-solids specialist, wrote in a 2012 email to other department officials, “I was told it wouldn’t look good for a state agency to enforce on another state agency. Really? I think it makes us look pretty bad when we overlook the environmental issues for them and enforce on others.”

Still, today’s prison oversight is considered an improvement over some DOE practices in the last millennium. In a 1999 report, citing an unidentified caller’s complaint, Ecology was advised that MCC had blacktopped part of an on-site wetlands. The complex was also “dumping chemicals into their sewer,” along with “acids, etc.,” the caller complained. But since a wetlands mitigation plan of some sort had been approved by the state, Ecology simply concluded that “wetland impacts at the facility arepresumed to be within permit conditions.” (Emphasis added).

Other concerns – dumping chemicals and acids into the outflow – “are not within my area of responsibility,” a DOE official wrote. In a follow-up of sorts, he eventually decided that “Ecology does not have the resources to investigate this complaint at this time. Sometime in the future we will work with the Department of Corrections towards achieving environmental compliance at the prison facilities.”

In those days, the feds pitched in to lend some oversight. In 2002, the EPA advised Ecology it should do something about a toilet facility on MCC’s Big Yard that was dumping human waste directly into the Skykomish River. “Maintenance supervisors at Monroe Correctional Center have been aware of this situation for some time and have not chosen to comply with [the law],” the EPA said in an advisory. “Dye testing was done two or three years ago by maintenance personnel [who] found it was connected to the storm sewer and not the sanitary sewer.”

Also, in 2006, the EPA passed along this tip: “For the past 20 plus years the Monroe correctional complex has had a firing range above the river and farm land. The military and other law enforcement agencies use this also. Water runs down from this site into the river and farmland below. The hillside that is shot into is full of lead, not to mention new housing going in nearby this site.” An Ecology inspector, responding to his manager’s request to look into the lead threat, said it was something they were unlikely to inspect until the range ceases operations, “or at such time as ‘off-site’ impacts are identified.” Apparently joking, the official added that “lead contamination of inmates attempting to escape don’t count.”

Prisoner Blows the Whistle, Lands in the Hole

Little if any of this has been reported by the local media. The general public may not care, or it simply might not know. And the DOC is not exactly clamoring for a frank discussion. Among the hundreds of recently-
obtained state documents is a 2013 letter to Ecology from an MCC prisoner who worked at the prison wastewater operation. Jonathan Jones-Thomas wrote that he “was thrown in the hole for asking too many questions about the wastewater treatment plant here on the Monroe compound.” He said he mistook a prison official in a white truck – similar to those driven by Ecology – as a DOE worker, and chatted with that person about sewage violations. He was subsequently told to leave his work area, he claimed, then strip-searched and put in the hole for five days. Officially, he said, he was accused of “introduction of contraband.”

PLN sought comment on Jones-Thomas’s claims from Mike Oberland, who was named superintendent of the 325-acre prison complex in April 2015. He referred questions to DOC headquarters in Olympia, where spokesperson Andrew Garber told us, “If you are referencing offender Jonathan Jones-Thomas and his placement in segregation in 2012, then that was not about him as an individual. He was placed on Administrative Segregation with 10 other offenders pending investigation of his possible involvement in the introduction of contraband within the secure perimeter of MCC. Following completion of the investigation he was released from Administrative Segregation back to his unit with no disciplinary infractions.”

Ecology and Corrections were separately asked to respond to various questions we raised about spills and other prison environmental issues. They chose to respond in a joint statement authored by DOE spokesperson Altos and DOC spokesperson Susan Biller. “DOC has requested $5.8 million dollars from the Legislature for a project that would correct and prevent the wastewater violations that have been occurring at MCC,” they said. “Ecology supports this request, and has done so in DOC’s previous attempts – which date back to 2005 – to include this capital project in its biennial budget.”

The project’s fate balances on the state legislature’s 2015-17 biennial budget deliberations. The DOC has had a wastewater lagoon replacement project at the bid-ready stage for construction since 2010, it says. The state provided a 2012 PowerPoint presentation to PLN that shows how the lagoons would be decommissioned and replaced by a new Fluent Exit Facility building that would send the prison waste to the city treatment plant. The three-year-old plan put the cost at exactly $5,876,500.

The Monroe prison’s wastewater pre-treatment plant removes some of the solids before discharge to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, the agencies said. But “MCC’s pre-treatment facility is old, outdated and no longer meets MCC’s needs for reliable wastewater pre-treatment and conveyance.”

The spokespersons confirmed that some of the ecology violations were a result of MCC having no permit to discharge into the Skykomish River. “The pre-treatment plant should discharge only to the city’s
sanitary sewer. The discharges to the river have occurred for a variety of reasons, primarily due to the facility’s age and inadequate design.”

Has Ecology been soft on the DOC’s violations? Yes, the spokespersons admitted, contending that is done purposely. “Repeated discharges from the same facility would ordinarily prompt Ecology to consider a penalty, a step Ecology has taken with state and public agencies in other situations. However, DOC’s corrective plan, if funded, would comprehensively address and eliminate the repeated failures at the facility. Because of this, and the caliber of MCC’s reporting and response, Ecology finds no value in a penalty, which is normally issued to compel attention and action.”

Prison Population Pressure Pushes Pollution Nationwide

These environmental conflicts come at a time when Washington’s prisons are close to overflowing with prisoners as well. The system was housing almost 16,700 prisoners as of April 2015; that’s 99.6 percent of operational capacity. In five years, the state projects, another 1,000 beds will be needed. The DOC hopes some or most of those beds will be provided by a proposed new prison – a converted juvenile detention center – south of the state capital, Olympia (where the state’s auditor, for one, is facing prison himself on charges of tax evasion and making false statements). As a backup the state has signed a deal with a private-prison operator, the Florida-based GEO Group, for 1,000 beds at a Michigan prison, the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin.

On May 21, 2015, GEO announced a contract to house Washington prisoners at North Lake, though DOC Secretary Bernard Warner said that would be a “last resort.” With or without the proposed new prison, Washington prisoners are likely to eventually be shipped to GEO’s Michigan facility to ease current overcrowding, adding another 2,000 miles (one way) to their families’ trips to visit them.

“In the short term we’re still going to have some challenges,” Warner told the Tacoma News Tribune. “I don’t know in two years or so whether we [will] run out of our ability to manage them safely, and we might need to look at out-of-state beds again.” The deal with GEO Group could cost Washington up to $24 million a year. Loren Taylor, a former DOC worker-turned prison reformist, says not only will prisoners suffer by the separation, but “you’re punishing the families” as well.

Tower at MCC prison Washington StateWashington prisons are not alone, of course, in facing a combined human and ecological deluge. Over the years, PLN has chronicled a series of stories of such failures in tandem with HRDC’s ongoing Prison Ecology Project. The project’s purpose is to “investigate, document and take actions to address the ways in which mass incarceration degrades the natural environment and the human health of those inside or nearby prisons and jails.” PLN has long been sounding that alarm, such as in a news report eight years ago. That November 2007 article revealed how crumbling, overcrowded prisons and jails nationwide were leaking environmentally dangerous effluents not just inside the facilities, but into local rivers, water tables and community water supplies.

Eight of California’s 33 state prisons had been cited for major water pollution problems, for example, while in Georgia, raw sewage spills forced the Fulton County Jail to herd female prisoners into overcrowded sections of the facility where they slept on the floor or were triple-celled. Similar raw sewage odors from beneath the Miami-Dade County Jail had been sickening prisoners and guards for years, and in New York and Massachusetts prisons, at least four prisoners contracted Legionnaire’s Disease, caused by a bacterium that is inhaled in fine water droplets associated with moldy water or ventilation systems.

Correctional institutions, the EPA said in an overview of prison ecology issues, “have many environmental matters to consider in order to protect the health of the inmates, employees and the community where the prison is located. Some prisons resemble small towns or cities with their attendant industries, population and infrastructure. Supporting these populations, including their buildings and grounds, requires heating and cooling, wastewater treatment, hazardous waste and trash disposal, asbestos management, drinking water supply, pesticide use, vehicle maintenance and power production, to name a few potential environmental hazards.” The EPA “has been inspecting correctional facilities to see how they are faring. From the inspections, it is clear many prisons have room for improvement.”

That was 2002. In 2015, when HRDC requested inspection documents from the EPA, an official responded, “We haven’t done a prison inspection in several years now.”

Washington’s Prison Sewage Problems Grow

Reading through the DOE documents chronologically reveals how Washington prison officials have tried but repeatedly failed to solve environmental challenges. At Monroe, the spills and the problematic sewage lagoons are a well-known tale on the inside, but untold elsewhere. The modern-day story begins with that earlier-mentioned 2006 prison sewage spill reported by the DOC to be 5,000 gallons (“likely higher,” DOE documents say), followed by the 2007 lagoon spill due to heavy rainfall in a state famous for precipitation.

In August 2011, records show, Ecology received an urgent call from Monroe prison officials. “When they came in this morning,” a report stated, “they discovered that an estimated 25,000 gallons of pre-treated wastewater had overflowed into the Skykomish River.” The treated effluent is supposed to go the other way – to the City of Monroe’s wastewater treatment plant, then to the river. The spill was likely “much higher” Ecology again stated, but didn’t give an estimate.

Either way it was not an encouraging sign: The wastewater pumps had been set wrong, officials determined. So, heck, they set them right. Then they were working again.

In May 2012, an Ecology water-quality project engineer followed up on a citizen’s tip that the prison was again dumping sewage into the Skykomish. After conferring with DOC environmental specialist Sherman Smith and the City of Monroe’s wastewater manager, John Lande, the engineer composed this commentary:

“MCC has a treatment lagoon system, a legacy from times before they were connected to the City sewer system. There is still an overflow pipe directly to the Skykomish River. The Complex has about 350,000 gallons/day flow, and two pumps – one with capacity of 200,000 gal/day and one with capacity 570,000 gal/day. The larger pump … is not working properly; their electrician is working on it. In addition, their PLC [controller] unit is broken, and they need the vendor to come out to repair it. There is currently no wastewater operator on staff.”

The operation, the engineer continued, “must switch between the two pumps manually and try to keep the flow to the WWTP balanced. Sherman says there may have been some ‘small’ overflows because they don’t have good control over the pumped flows. John at Monroe WWTP can tell by the flow at the plant when the MCC is not pumping and says he tried to contact [Ecology] about this around 2 weeks ago. He could provide flow records if we needed this data. It doesn’t mean MCC was discharging to the river; they may have just emptied their lagoon and let it refill because they can’t control the pumping rate. Both John and Donovan Sheppard are licensed to do contract operations and have offered to help while MCC has no operator but this was not accepted by MCC.”

The plan to fix all this, going back several years, the engineer said, “is to eliminate the lagoons and send all MCC’s sewage directly to the [city] WWTP. The City wants this, the DOC staff wants it, and Ecology definitely does. The project is designed but has not been funded; the DOC needs to get an allocation … I’m thinking we should send a letter to David Jansen [DOC Director of Capital Programs] and Robert Herzog [then-Superintendent of MCC] requesting that they fix this situation ASAP.”

Responding to the engineer and another DOE official, a third state Ecology worker, Marietta Sharp, detailed a recent visit to the prison. “John Lande took me up there, and we had an opportunity to talk to the two inmate workers there. John said that he had talked to both of you regarding overflows at the lagoon site that he observed. He also was concerned about the flow pattern of material coming to his plant. It is very erratic, which leads him to believe that more than one overflow event has occurred. This was confirmed by the inmate workers on site. There is currently no trained wastewater operator on site.

“One of the workers, J.T. Jones [she may mean the earlier-mentioned Jonathan Jones-Thomas, who claimed to have been thrown in the hole for speaking out], detailed the problems they have seen and tried to correct. Apparently, they are supposed to go to the lagoons and monitor outflows to Monroe WWTP daily Monday-Friday. There should be someone at the site every day according to John and J.T. The workers are very interested in getting their certification, and John promised to work with them towards that goal. However, as things stand now, when the power goes off at the facility, which apparently happens frequently, they are locked in for days and cannot go take care of the lagoon system and flow to Monroe. The last time it occurred, they couldn’t get there for several days regardless of telling the management that there would likely be a breach if they couldn’t go down. Finally, after several days, they were allowed back to work, but observed a major overflow to the [river]. J.T. said that he has observed at least two overflows lasting 3-5 days each. John Lande has also witnessed such overflows.

Honor Farm sewage lagoon at MCC about to overflow“I know,” Sharp continued, “from our program there is not much I can do about this, however I am hoping that you can help us out. At the very least they need a trained and certified operator on site, and it would be especially useful if they were forced to permanently plug the outlet to the river. I know the issues around enforcement of DOC, since I have tried to get them to close the abandoned lagoon at the Honor Farm for nearly 10 years, but am constantly told … that we can’t enforce on another state agency because it would look bad. I think it looks worse when we totally overlook the environmental issues they cause.”

A reminder letter was sent from Ecology to MCC in August 2012, pointing out that “Unpermitted discharges of sewage, whether partially treated or untreated are violations of State laws and Rules…. The MCC does not have a permit to discharge to waters of the State and therefore, all of MCC’s sewage needs to be conveyed to the City of Monroe for treatment. The amount of flow from MCC is a significant portion of the flow to the City of Monroe’s Wastewater Treatment Plant and the fluctuations in flow to the City’s system can make treatment difficult for the City of Monroe.”

Still, the practice was to not deck the DOC with any knockout fines, so it wasn’t much of a threat. The DOE wanted to see some forward movement from Corrections, however. “In discussions with both MCC staff, the City of Monroe staff, and Ecology staff, it seems most apparent that an appropriate remedy to this situation is to convert the MCC lagoon system to a pump station only system and to close/seal off the outfalls which lead to surface waters,” Ecology said in a situation update and request to the DOC.

“We understand that the design for this conversion is complete and that the process for this project to convert may be in the beginning stages. In light of the fact that unauthorized sewage discharges to waters of the State can be subject to enforcement action, Ecology requests to see a status update on this project which would include a timeline for completion of the project, the planned designs for the project, and the status of funding. Please provide this information by August 31, 2012.” In one more email, a DOE official said, “The prison did have that overflow last fall, and never followed up with a letter to Ecology. Maybe we could use spill enforcement to lean on them to complete the lagoon replacement project.”

The Big Spill

The DOC’s response, of sorts? Another spill. The largest. In late November that same year, Ecology learned that the prison sewage lagoon pumps had failed during the Thanksgiving weekend. The spill began sometime around Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, and wasn’t “stabilized” until the following Tuesday. By then, close to an estimated 400,000 gallons of pretreated wastewater was dumped into a wetlands preserve and the Skykomish River.

Dike of the Honor Farm sewage lagoon at MCC in danger of spilling at any moment
In an email, the DOC’s Sherman Smith told Ecology: “Sometime over the Thanksgiving holiday (4 days), both effluent pumps faulted. The person that would normally monitor the lagoon levels called in sick on the following Monday, so the overflow was not discovered until about mid-day on Monday. Only one pump would come back online using electronic controls. The other pump was put into bypass, running at 100%. Both pumps could not run at full speed due to a poor power line to the WWTP [prison treatment plant]. I believe that the pumps faulted because of the under-voltage condition brought on by both pumps attempting to run at full speed on automatic and the deteriorated power lines.

“The power line to the WWTP has been operated in a deteriorated state for about 6 months and is being replaced today, November 29th, which should improve reliability for pump control. When the lagoon level was last checked on Wednesday, November 21st, the pond level was still higher than normal overcoming a 2” rainfall on Monday, but it was still approximately 6” below overflow conditions and the pumps were operating appropriately on automatic mode … there is no telling when the pumps faulted.” He calculated the spill to be 387,500 gallons.

Smith said the prison was taking a number of mitigation actions to prevent a similar, future spill. They included having a staff member come in over any holiday weekend to check the status of the pumps and lagoon levels – something, surprisingly, that wasn’t being done considering the problematic history of the system. Further, one pump wou
ld be continuously operated independently of the control system, reducing the impacts from any new controller trips, Smith said. They would also “correct a mis-wired pump motor” so it can run at the desired capacity. And they would “Repair or replace effluent check valves to allow proper control of the system as designed.” All the modifications suggested these were changes that should have been done much earlier.

Adding Fossil Fuel to the Contamination Cocktail

For a change of pace, it was diesel fuel that spilled at MCC in 2013, according to an Ecology record. The likely source was a pump that had caused a spill ten years earlier but “had not been dealt with to completion.” In other words, not totally fixed. The January 2013 leak left an oil sheen on the Skykomish River. The prison said it would collect soil samples and, if needed, excavate any toxic earth. It didn’t seem like much of an issue.

But in a follow-up, Ecology reported that it took weeks to resolve and the department still did “not know as to when the diesel began to enter” the river. Another DOE email revealed that a DOC official admitted the spill was a “‘complicated clean up’ due to the ‘tremendous amount of infrastructure’ they have encountered while remediating the soil at the site of the diesel spill. The DOC has already spent the money that [the budget office] gave them for the clean-up and are in the process of applying for emergency compliance funds in order to complete the project before the construction season ends. However, [DOC] does not expect that their request will be granted prior to the end of summer so they are prepared with a plan to place the clean up on hold until the summer of 2014.”

The DOC had other cleanups to do the following summer, though, as spills became something the prison could almost count on. On June 18, 2014, a 20,000 to 30,000 gallon sewage overflow was discovered. An Ecology spill record noted that the event was “not reported” to the DOE. The overflow, “Once it saturates wetland,” said the record, “goes to City ditch, underneath spur roadway, roundabout and piped out to farmlands ditch line, then river.”

DOC official Sherman Smith told Ecology he didn’t inform them of the June 18 spill “because I was waiting to discuss it with the city and the contact didn’t return my call until Monday the following week. I only have vague information about the spill on Sunday because we don’t really know when it started.”

In a separate, later email he reported that “The lift station … had two pumps fail at approximately the same time, causing sewage overflow to a ditch that drains to a filled stormwater pond that is now a mature wetlands. From the drain at the stormwater pond, it then drains to Monroe’s stormwater system. Their system downstream from our drain consists of a very large and filled stormwater lake (non-recreational), which then would drain into Lake Tye. The city wants to be informed so that they can monitor downstream and that they would determine the need for contacting the health department. Previous spills have never resulted in elevated coliform levels of Lake Tye and I seriously believe that this one would either.”

On June 27, 2014, the prison spilled another estimated 20,000 gallons. “Did not see any solids,” a DOC official reported. “Think it is closer to grey water than black water.” The system control panel “keeps tripping,” the DOC contact added. “Have replaced the pump. Going to get someone to figure out what is going on.”

About a week later, on July 6, the DOC reported a 15,000-gallon sewage release into the city and prison stormwater systems. It was that holiday thing again – the long Fourth of July weekend – and once again nobody was watching the store. The spill was caused by a control system that intermittently kept turning off. “Getting it fixed,” the prison promised Ecology.

Sherman Smith later expanded on the spill in an email update: “I just learned this morning that there was another overflow yesterday morning (Sunday) that lasted for at least three hours. Proper notification procedures were not followed resulting in the extended overflow. Based upon my guess at 5,000 gallons per hour, I would estimate that +15,000 gallons were released into our stormwater system…. We have requested emergency funds to have the controls replaced and have ordered a new pressure switch to hopefully fix the problem in the interim.” An Ecology follow-up report noted that “the facility has relied on personnel to manually turn the pumps on/off.” But once again someone forgot to have someone come in and do that. The spill was “human error,” the DOE said.

On July 16, the prison reported another 5,000-gallon sewage release. The cause was the main circuit breaker “that keeps tripping.” The spill went into a wetlands and drainage ditch on prison property, where it was reportedly “cleaned up.” Ecology, in a report, called the equipment failure “an ongoing issue.” Part of the failure of the control system, the department said, “can be attributed to the extreme solids being pumped (gloves, dog waste in bags, sheets, medical supplies) because these items can slip through the [filtering] bars.”

No End In Sight

Ecology officials noted in a July 22 email exchange that “The Monroe facility has both a sanitary overflow problem (to storm) and a contaminated soil/groundwater problem as a result of a 2013 spill (affects storm).”

The DOC told Ecology it could solve the prison’s environmental breakdowns if it just had more money. It planned to make a funding request to the legislature in 2015 to close the lagoons and send all sewage directly to the city’s treatment/processing plant. “In the last month, there were three sewage overflows from the MCC[’s] aging and outdated facility,” an Ecology email stated, discussing the DOC’s plan. “In fact there has been a long history of sewage overflows at MCC. MCC has experienced at least six large sewage overflows to surface waters in the last 8 years.”

“In January 2013,” the email continued, “Ecology issued a Notice of Violation [NOV] for a 300,000 gallon [closer to 400,000] unauthorized discharge of pre-treated lagoon wastewater to the Skykomish River. MCC provided a thorough response to our NOV. In the response, MCC notes that the design for the [city hookup] project has been completed and been ready to bid since 2010. Unfortunately, the legislature apparently was unimpressed or DOC was unpersuasive. So this year DOC would try again to get funding through a 2015-2025 Ten Year Capital Budget request. Ecology said it would try to encourage the facility to continue to pursue all legislative funding opportunities.”

A few months later, in November 2014, the prison belatedly reported a steam line failure that dumped treated boiler water into the storm system. “Release has not been stopped at this point,” an official stated. “It is going to take some major renovations.”

DOE and prison officials claim they’ve done whatever they can to make the lagoons safe until they’re removed. “MCC has reported each incident to Ecology and has responded to Ecology requests for technical information. DOC has made repairs or performed maintenance to prevent recurrences. But, each new incident tends to originate from a different failure than the last.”

The two departments think a solution is at hand. But is the money? “When funded, DOC’s project will replace the pre-treatment lagoon and pumped delivery system with a gravity flow system that will screen plastics, rags and other solids prior to discharging wastewater into the city’s sewer,” the agencies said. “The city of Monroe, which recently upgraded its wastewater treatment system, has the conveyance capacity and treatment facilities ready to tie in with the MCC project.”

“The state looks forward to installing and completing a legislatively funded permanent solution to any Monroe wastewater spills,” they added.

Unfortunately, Washington State’s budget, which was approved on June 30, 2015, did not include funding to correct the sewage discharge problems at MCC, according to Maurice Perigo with the Office of Financial Management. Meanwhile, the DOC’s efforts to “go green” at other prisons continue, with “40 LEED [certified] buildings completed and many more underway,” including the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, which is Gold LEED certified.


Rick Anderson is a former San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter and an ex-news columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times – where he won the Heywood Broun award for columns about the underdog. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, The Village Voice, Sports Illustrated, LA Weekly and Salon. He writes a column on “sex, crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing,” for Seattle Weekly. He produced this article exclusively for PLN.

Please make a donation to support HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project which helped to make this story possible