Private Prison Proposed for Clearfield County, Pennsylvania

DEP finds prison site free of arsenic contamination

Monday, June 05, 2000

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Investigators have found no unacceptable levels of arsenic on the Clearfield County land where a Texas company is fighting to build the only private prison in Pennsylvania.

The finding came three weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns about arsenic contamination and asked the state to investigate -- opening another problem for a project steeped in controversy.

Daniel Spadoni, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that DEP took 26 soil samples and found all within normal ranges and considered the matter a closed case.

"These are even a little bit better than results we initially had," said Thomas Jenkins, senior vice president with Cornell Corrections Inc., the Houston-based company planning to build a 1,000-inmate prison just west of Philipsburg.

Christopher Bungo, a local resident whose Citizens Advisory Committee on Private Prisons filed a federal lawsuit last year charging that prison planners skimped on environmental studies, said he had not seen the DEP report and couldn't comment.

Cornell plans to build the prison and, under contract to the federal Bureau of Prisons, house inmates from the federal system. When the plan was announced last year, supporters cheered it as economic tonic for hard-pressed Clearfield County.

But site preparation work stopped last year when Bungo's group sued. And state Attorney General Mike Fisher has promised to sue, charging that state law does not allow a private company to hold prisoners in the commonwealth.

The possibility that the prison tract was laden with arsenic -- a poison and carcinogen -- was raised in a Bureau of Prisons environmental assessment that said the arsenic may have been a leftover from sludge-dumping on the reclaimed strip mines, where the prison would be built. EPA, in turn, took the matter to DEP.

Regulators' key to judging arsenic levels is based on how much arsenic naturally occurs in nearby soil.

DEP's samples showed arsenic ranging from 5 to 18.6 parts per million in some soil at the prison site and up to three miles away. The U.S. Geologic Survey said averages for the eastern United States range from 0.1 to 73 parts per million.

Bungo charged yesterday that Cornell's contractors may already have stripped away heavily contaminated soil when they did three weeks of site work before the project was stopped last year. But Todd Eads, Cornell construction manager, said last week that no dirt was removed from the site.

Michael Fisher, attorney general for Pennsylvania, has threatened legal action against Cornell Corrections Inc. if it builds the prison on land located 250 miles northwest of the District of Columbia. He declares that Pennsylvania has no law or statute that permits private prisons. The company started construction in the spring and has spent more than $11 million. Construction of the prison was slated for completion in December.

Cornell wants to build the prison on a tract of land in a poor section of central Pennsylvania. The Citizens Advisory Committee on Private Prisons in Osceola Mills filed a lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Prisons because the bureau didnít complete an environmental impact statement. The bureau was forced to issue a stop-work order for at least 45 days in June.

The contract is one of two that the Bureau of Prisons will award to house more than 2,000 D.C. inmates who must be moved because of the closure of the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County, Va., by 2001. The bureau hasnít awarded the other contract.

Centre Daily Times, 06/02/1999
Proposed Philipsburg, Pa., Prison Faces Court Challenge

An Osceola Mills citizens group has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons to halt construction of the proposed privately-run prison near Philipsburg. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Johnstown by the Citizens Advisory Committee on Private Prisons, contends that the Bureau of Prisons violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 because it has not completed an environmental impact statement. The suit alleges that, the Bureau of Prisons, whose own internal policies usually dictate compliance with NEPA, has acted in violation of that law in awarding Cornell Corrections, of Houston, Texas a contract to build the 1,000-prisoner facility without requiring environmental impact studies first. "

Citizens Advisory Committee on Private Prisons vs. United States
Department of Justice; Pennsylvania;
May 1999; 22 pages:
Suit by citizenís group to stop FBOP from awarding contract to Cornell to build and operate a for-profit private prison in Pennsylvania.

March 23, 2002
For more than two years, Pennsylvania's Attorney General Mike Fisher has stood by his objections to Cornell Corrections' plans to build a private prison in Clearfield County, saying that state law did not allow a corporation to be a jailer. In an exclusive interview with the Progress, Mr. Fisher said his office has formulated a plan that might "satisfy everyone concerned." "What we're trying to do is federalize the prison," Rep. Lynn Herman said yesterday, "it will then be legal." Cornell, which would be the contracted operator of the facility, would also own the property and the structure, allowing the local tax-base to benefit. Not everyone sees the proposal as good news, however. "It was Mr. Fisher who said that private companies cannot own and operate prisons without the General Assembly's authorization," said state Rep. Camile "Bud" George, D-74 of Houtzdale, in a statement this week. "I can assure you that authorization has not been given." He called the proposal a "deal kept secret from the media, the citizens of Clearfield County and legislators of all stripes," and said the issues has become "a political animal rather than a question of what is right for the people..." (Clearfield Progress)

The federal government yesterday lifted a moratorium that helped put a two-year freeze on what would be Pennsylvania's only privately owned prison. That left developers suggesting that the Clearfield County project could go to construction by spring. But they still face stiff opposition from Gov. Tom Ridge and state Attorney General Mike Fisher. "Our position has remained unchanged, that state law as currently written doesn't allow incarceration of inmates by private entities," Fisher spokesman Sean Connolly said yesterday. The federal government froze work in June 1999, when a locally based group, the Citizens Advisory Committee on Private Prisons, filed a complaint charging that bureau hadn't done environmental homework on the project. Wednesday, federal Judge D. Brooks Smith in Johnstown ruled that all was well -- a decision that opponents are deciding whether to appeal. (Post Gazette)

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Last modified: 18 May 2002