The Real Harm of Environmentally Poisonous Lands

by Vins
Published: Updated:

The year 2003 was a game changer when two Pennsylvania State Correction facilities were shut down and relocated to a new facility, the State Correctional Institute at Fayette (SCI Fayette), outside the town LaBelle, which was built directly on top of an old coal mine and adjacent to a fly ash dump – fly ash is “the powdery residue left over from coal combustion” – Kevin Williams reports for Al Jazeera. After thirteen years of operation and many health problems, nothing is being done to combat the effects of the toxic waste site known as the old coal mine. As Williams notes in his article, “‘Poisonous Lands’: Pennsylvania Prison Built Next to Toxic Dump,” prisoners and townsfolk alike are being harmed by the debris.

Prisons being built on toxic lands are nothing new, but the adverse health effects are not just harming the prisoners. The local townsfolk and the correction officers are also being affected by the state’s choice to cut costs and save money. Although the scale of impact seems to be contained to only this relatively small area, the actuality is that as consumers we are creating this problem. The coal mine site has higher contaminant recordings than the federal and state standards of lead, mercury, arsenic, etc. (Williams, 2016). These contaminants are causing the individuals to develop cancer at a statistically significant rate higher than the general populous. The individuals in this area are experiencing medical issues involving skin, eye, throat, and nose irritation.

Our capitalistic consumer tendencies create the demand for these environmentally poisonous lands. The demand we create for coal products by being reliant on non-renewable resources has created environmentally poisonous lands; the corporations are unwilling to comply with the environmental standards, because it cuts into their profits. Without the compliance of the corporation in charge of the coal mine and ash dump, Matt Canestrale Contracting, these health issues will only become more prevalent. However, their number one customer being First Energy proves that our demand for energy being reliant upon coal is detrimental both to our environment and humanity.

The Pittsburg Post-Gazette published a short article in 2014 by Don Hopey, “State, Corrections Union Investigate Health at Prisons by Coal Sites,” addressing the investigation that the Abolitionist Law Center, in conjunction with the Human Rights Coalition, is conducting. However, it focused on the contaminated water supply to the prison, not the fly ash that is contaminating Fayette County. Furthermore the article’s title leads us to believe that the corrections union is investigating multiple prisons, when the entire focus of the article is the SCI Fayette. The corporate media has neglected this blatant human rights violation, because of the belief that prisoners are “garbage”(Williams, 2016). Williams’ article gives both the prisoners’ perspective, based on the research being conducted by the Abolitionist Law Center with the help of the Human Rights Coalition, and community members, who are all being effected by toxins from the coal mine and ash dump. Williams’ points out how the fight against corporations would require a lot of money and legal proceedings. Furthermore, the issues occurring here have not received greater media coverage because LaBelle, the community being harmed, does not consist of $500,000 homes. As Williams shows, the costs are greater than monetary compensation; they are costing our environment and humanity.


Kevin Williams, “‘Poisonous Lands’: Pennsylvania Prison Built Next to Toxic Dump,” Al Jazeera, February 23, 2016,

Dustin S. McDaniel, Bret Grote, Ben Fiorillo, Devon Cohen, and Quinn A. Cozzens, “No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at State Correctional Institution Fayette,” Abolitionist Law Center, September 2, 2014,

Don Hopey, “State, Corrections Union Investigate Health at Prisons by Coal Sites,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 17, 2014,

Student Researcher: Alexandrya Weiss (Saginaw Valley State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Emily J. Beard (Saginaw Valley State University)