This story was originally published on June 26, 2015.
George “Sonny” Markish stood in his yard with a TV reporter in April 2013 and pointed to a towering hill next to his house in LaBelle, in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
The camera zoomed in on Markish, with slicked-back gray hair, swiping his hand across a window sill coated in a dusty substance.
“When I come out here my eyes begin to water,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network reporter. “I can taste foul things, and I see dust that is coming from the dump.”
Markish told the reporter he had cancer. So did his wife. He also lost four or five dogs to mouth cancer.
The dump Markish refers to is a site owned by Matt Canestrale Contracting, where coal ash, or “fly ash,” is stored. Coal ash is the fine powdery material that’s left over after coal gets burned at power plants. For years, Markish and other LaBelle residents have said the dump has made them sick.
About a mile away on the other side of the fly-ash dump, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution was watching TV one day. Click. The channel changed, and there’s Markish and other LaBelle residents talking about coal ash. The prisoner couldn’t look away.
Marcus Tito Santos had started getting sick at the maximum-security prison in LaBelle in year three of his five-to-10-year sentence. He was imprisoned in 2010 for selling cocaine in his hometown of Harrisburg.
It started with nosebleeds. Santos, who was 41 at the time, said he’d be walking in the prison yard and blood would start pouring from his nose.
“Almost with no warning at all, it was just like someone turned on a faucet,” he said.
In the months after came skull-crushing headaches, rashes and hives. When he drank water, he got intense heartburn. Santos said his hands, feet, face and genitals swelled up.
The swelling blurred his vision and strained his breathing. Medical records from the prison confirm his symptoms.
“I am afraid that one day the swelling will get so severe that I will die from suffocation,” Santos wrote to a prison program officer.
He said he was a healthy man when he came to SCI-Fayette in February 2012. He was ripped. He was proud of his body.
But at the prison, he felt like something was killing him.
Doctors there couldn’t figure out what was causing his symptoms. One doctor said he might be allergic to pollen, Santos says. He didn’t buy that. He had never had allergies before and his family had no history of it.
Santos filed a grievance and requested a transfer to another prison. Prison officials denied it.
Then he saw Markish on TV talking about his troubles with coal ash. Could that be why he was sick? He decided to write a letter.
Markish and Santos don’t seem to have much in common besides both going by nicknames, Sonny and Tito, and their deep love for food. For Markish, it’s honey and anything he grows in his garden. For Santos, it’s Mexican fare.
They’ve never met but they are integral characters in the story of LaBelle and its coal-ash dump.
Coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the United States, and Pennsylvania produces more of it than any other state—about 15.4 million tons per year.
The Matt Canestrale Contracting heap in LaBelle—an old coal town on the Monongahela River in one of Pennsylvania’s poorest counties—includes 360 acres that handles both coal ash and coal refuse. It used to be bigger, but in 2000, the company transferred 237 acres to the state to build the prison next door.
Before the company starting taking fly ash, coal refuse was dumped there for decades. Coal refuse is a byproduct of mining coal and cleaning it to be burned at power plants, and there’s about 40 million tons of it at the LaBelle site.
In the late 1990s, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection permitted the Canestrale company to “reclaim” the site by mixing coal refuse with coal ash. Coal ash, which is alkaline, can neutralize acidic materials like coal refuse so it is less polluting when released.
LISTEN: “Two Men, One Coal-Ash Dump, No Answers”
Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These metals can leach into groundwater and waterways.
Coal ash has “the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality,” according to a 2010 report from Physicians for Social Responsibility.
People can be exposed to coal ash by what’s called “fugitive dust,” which can blow off of sites and trucks hauling it to dumps. The dust can get into the lungs and can also get absorbed through the skin, according to the physician group’s report.
DEP records show the agency has cited Matt Canestrale Contracting 17 times in the last five years, including for fugitive dust and polluting groundwater. But the violations were minor, says John Stefanko, deputy secretary of DEP’s Office of Active and Abandoned Mining Operations.
“Even the best operators of permitted facilities do have violations,” Stefanko says. “Overall, for the most part, we’ve not had any real major issues out there.”
Neither the company nor its lawyer responded to numerous requests for comment.
Stefanko said his bureau has received 11 complaints about fugitive dust from the site since it opened nearly two decades ago.
The DEP has sent inspectors to see if dust was blowing off the waste pile or if it was visible in the community; Stefanko said they were satisfied that it wasn’t. The inspectors did not take air samples, he said.
To date, no one has been able to prove in court that pollutants from the fly ash have caused illness.
Markish, who is 77, walks through his garden of tomatoes, peppers, herbs and even a kiwi tree. He finally gets to his bee hives.
“I have about 400 pounds of water white honey—top of the line,” Markish said proudly. He’s retired after a life working on barges hauling coal on Western Pennsylvania rivers and working in construction.
He and his wife, Colleen, live about 500 yards from the coal-ash site. Markish has had three types of cancer. His wife had a cancerous chunk of her right kidney removed and was recently diagnosed with precancerous skin on her legs. Others in the area have said they have various types of cancer, respiratory ailments, heart problems and thyroid issues.
“It’s hell, this place,” Markish said.
George “Sonny” Markish stands in his yard in LaBelle, Fayette County, about 500 yards away from a coal ash disposal site. Markish and others in the area have said they believe pollution from the site has caused their cancers and other illnesses. Photo: Natasha Khan
He points to the hillside road the trucks would use to haul ash to the top of the dump.
“It looks like a dust storm in the Sahara desert,” he said, describing how fly ash would shower down from the trucks. Those truckloads of ash are supposed to be covered, according to DEP rules.
The site hasn’t taken coal ash for 18 months, according to the DEP, but could eventually accept coal ash that currently goes to Little Blue Run, the largest coal ash impoundment in the country.
Markish said he began calling the DEP to complain about the Canestrale site in 2002. He said he felt officials didn’t take him seriously or, when DEP inspectors did come, they reported no violations.
“Because we are a small community, they figure we have no voice,” he said.
Markish is part of an environmental lawsuit against the company filed in 2013 by the Citizens Coal Council, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that advocates for coal mining communities.
The group claims the company allowed seepage from the site to pollute four local streams without a permit and also allowed trucks to haul coal ash uncovered. The suit is currently in settlement negotiations.
About 50 LaBelle residents are involved, according to the complaint. The lawsuit doesn’t address their health issues.
It also doesn’t include any information on the more than 2,000 prisoners and hundreds of guards and staff just over the hill at SCI-Fayette.
Month after month, Santos’ symptoms persisted.
At first, prison doctors prescribed Benadryl, Tums and ibuprofen. Those didn’t help much. They eventually started him on prednisone, a strong steroid. It helped, but wasn’t a cure. He started keeping journals about his condition.
“I had a breakout today on the arch of my foot and my right armpit,” Santos wrote in an August 31, 2012 entry. “I’ll show them the armpit as proof, but I know it’ll be pointless.”
Another day in August 2012, Santos went to the infirmary because his throat was swelling. There was no doctor in, so a nurse called one who said Santos should be given Tums.
He said the nurse told him, “If you make it, you make it, and if you don’t…” and then “he just stopped,” Santos said.
“I got a 12-year-old son. I can’t leave him out there,” Santos said. “My sentence was five to 10. Not death.”
Desperate and with few avenues to help within the prison, seeing Markish on TV prompted Santos to start writing to advocacy organizations.
“I understand this letter may make me seem a bit ‘out there.’ But even a brief investigation will reveal what is truly going on in this area,” he wrote.
He sent one letter to the Human Rights Coalition, a Philadelphia prison rights group who shared it with the Abolitionist Law Center, a legal group in Pittsburgh that represents inmates on human rights issues.
The groups started talking to Santos and other inmates who said they were sick. Could be from the coal-ash site. Maybe from the water, they speculated. The two groups decided to launch a health survey at the prison.
The Health Survey
A yearlong investigation published by the prison rights groups in September 2014 showed 61 out of 75 respondents said they experienced respiratory issues; 51 reported gastrointestinal problems; about half had experienced skin conditions, including rashes, cysts and abscesses; 9 said they’d developed a thyroid condition at the prison or a pre-existing condition had worsened there.
The investigation found 11 prisoners died at SCI-Fayette from cancer between 2010 and 2013, and another six said they’d been diagnosed with cancer at the prison. An additional eight inmates reported undiagnosed tumors and lumps.
“Health is a human right, and if the patterns that have emerged during our investigation are indicative of the harms and risks that accompany confinement at SCI-Fayette, then it is imperative that the prison is shut down,” the report states.
Prisoners interviewed for the advocacy groups’ investigation described how window sills and vents within the prison were often covered with black dust, a claim backed up by former corrections officer Lee Ulery.
“The filters on these vents were actually just completely black,” says Ulery, who left the prison in 2013 because of health problems. “It seemed like they couldn’t change them fast enough.”
Ulery said three other corrections officers at the prison got kidney cancer. He blames the water at the prison, which comes from the Tri-County Joint Municipal Water Authority in nearby Fredericktown.
The water authority has been cited several times, as recently as this month, for exceeding federal limits for trihalomethanes, a carcinogen formed through chlorination. Water authority experts have blamed high levels of these chemicals in drinking water on pollution of freshwater sources by shale gas wastewater.
In response to the group’s report, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and the state health department reviewed prisoners’ health conditions. The departments found “no evidence of any unsafe environmental conditions or any related medical issues,” according to a December statement.
The DOC took cancer rates at the prison from 2010 to 2013 and compared them with rates at other state prisons, and found SCI-Fayette’s rate “falls exactly in the middle.”
The DOC also reviewed the number of medications given to inmates for respiratory and gastrointestinal issues and found the rate at SCI-Fayette was either in the middle or slightly lower than at other state prisons.
The DOC would not talk to PublicSource about its report. Spokeswoman Sue Bensinger wrote in an email that “the Department believes the report speaks for itself.”
The Department of Health report took SCI-Fayette’s cancer rate and compared it to the rate of all males in the state. The department said it did not find “significant levels of carcinogens” or other environmental conditions that could increase the risks for cancer.
The DOC also had the drinking water tested in August 2014. The tests showed the water met all drinking water standards, including for trihalomethanes. A March 27 test of the water going into the prison by the water authority confirmed the same.
Attorney Dustin McDaniel, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, said the state reports fell short because the prison was never tested for the presence of coal ash, and it focused on cancer, neglecting other health issues the group found a pattern of at the prison.
“I don’t think they necessarily were serious about an investigation at all,” McDaniel said.
Dustin McDaniel, a lawyer and executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center, is trying to prove that pollution from the coal ash dump in LaBelle and area drinking water have sickened inmates and guards at SCI-Fayette. The group wants the prison to be shut down. Photo: Reid R. Frazier
According to James Fabisiak, a toxicologist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, a comprehensive study would include a transparent attempt to test the air and water at the prison and surrounding communities for contaminants present in coal ash over a period of time, along with an analysis of health effects.
“Then you could make the association between elevation of those [contaminants] and health effects,” he said.
John Poister, a DEP spokesman, notified PublicSource and the Allegheny Front on Wednesday that the DEP plans to test the water inside the prison in the coming months at the DOC’s request.
Fabisiak said the law center’s report also was lacking because it was limited to only the inmates who responded to its survey. Self-reported health effects can be subjective, he said, and, therefore, are of limited use in proving whether a public health problem exists.
McDaniel’s group is now working on a more comprehensive health survey of Fayette prisoners. They mailed health surveys to all 2,000 inmates and have received roughly 600 responses.
If McDaniel can prove there’s a health risk at SCI-Fayette, he said confinement there could be considered “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the legal group could bring an Eighth Amendment case against the prison.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Coalition and other groups are petitioning Gov. Tom Wolf to look into the issue.
“The administration is aware of analyses done by [the] DEP and DOC regarding this issue,” Jeff Sheridan, the governor’s press secretary, wrote in an email. “If any group has further evidence or information to the contrary of these analyses, we would be open to review such data.”
So far, the group has collected about 500 signatures and plans to present the petition to Wolf in the fall, said coalition member Ben Fiorillo.
On Nov. 27, 2012, Santos walked into Dr. David Skoner’s office at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. The prison had finally allowed him to seek outside care in search of a diagnosis.
“When I first encountered Marcos, he was distraught, frightened, thought he was going to die,” said Skoner, an allergist and immunologist.
Skoner gave Santos an extensive round of skin and blood tests to check for allergic triggers. The tests didn’t show anything.
“We came up blank,” Skoner said.
Skoner put Santos on a soy-free diet and prescribed an allergy medication.
“I made a decision if he came back and the medicines couldn’t control it and we had not found a source, that I would assume that something in the new environment, in the new prison, was causing his problems,” Skoner said. “And if there’s coal ash near that prison and that would be a likely cause, maybe we could make that link. But it’s really hard to prove those things.”
In February 2013, Santos was back in his office and nothing had changed.
Skoner recommended that Santos be transferred to another prison. A few months later, Santos was transferred to SCI-Smithfield in Huntingdon, Pa.
When Santos entered his new cell, he took a small sip of water and waited for the heartburn. It never came.
“That water was so damn good,” he said. “Drank so much I was sick to my stomach.”
After a few months at Smithfield, most of his symptoms faded. Now, after being released from prison in March, 44-year-old Santos said he still gets the occasional rash or headache, but nothing like his time at SCI-Fayette.
Markish hadn’t heard Santos’ story and how his TV interview pushed the former inmate to write the letter that launched the prison health survey.
“Oh, wow—am I thankful for that,” Markish said.
“I mean you go to prison so that you’re not free,” he said from his front porch, looking out at the dump. “But I don’t think you should be poisoned while you’re in there.”