Officials Take Issue With Points Raised In Garner Radon Lawsuit
Newtown’s Land Use Director, Health District Director, and Public Works Director — who also advises the local Water & Sewer Authority — are taking issue with several points articulated in media reports about separate state and federal class action lawsuits regarding alleged radon and uranium exposure at the Garner Correctional Institution.
In 2017, 13 prisoners brought a federal lawsuit for allegedly suffering ailments related to radon exposure. A similar state lawsuit lists 22 plaintiffs, including current and former employees.
The latest version of the amended federal complaint from August 2018 suggests that the state Department of Corrections, through inaction or negligence, has been “forcing inmates to be exposed involuntarily to indoor radon gas, a recognized human carcinogen, far in excess of any published safe level for more than 20 years... posing an unreasonable risk of serious damage to an inmate’s health in violation of their rights under the United States and Connecticut constitutions.”
The federal complaint points out the Supreme Court has held that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution protects prisoners from an official’s deliberate indifference to conditions posing an unreasonable risk of serious damage to the prisoner’s future health, deeming such indifference “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Among the defendants is Scott Semple, who has served as the Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Correction since August 2014. Prior to that appointment, from mid-2009 through November 26, 2013, Mr Semple was Warden at Garner, after which time he was promoted to Deputy Commissioner for Operations prior to being named to head the Department of Correction.
Defendant James Dzurenda also served as Warden at Garner from 2005 to 2009, and he was Deputy Commissioner for Operations from July 2010 to April of 2013, when he became Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Correction through August 2014.
The suit states that the class action plaintiffs were exposed to radon gas levels at Garner that were double, triple, and even more than five times the EPA action level — meaning that inmates were exposed daily to the equivalent of smoking up to two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day.
After reviewing various reports on the action subsequent to its filing, the local officials noted that a number of assertions made in various media reports appear to be partially or completely incorrect.
In a recent meeting with The Newtown Bee, Health District Director Donna Culbert referenced one media report that stated tests by the Town of Newtown showed the water supply to the prison contained more than eight times the safe levels for radon, a carcinogen.
But Ms Culbert recalled that testing was for uranium, a radioactive substance that can contribute to the development of radon gas.
“If they are citing water tests we did when (former Health District Director) Mark Cooper was here, there were three out of 50 wells tested that had elevated uranium,” she said. “But there were plenty of samples that did not contain elevated levels of uranium.”
While the town does test for uranium in its water supply, “we do not test for radon,” Ms Culbert said. “It gets a little dicey when they talk about radon in the air and uranium in the water,” Ms Culbert said of various media reports.
Virtually Pure Water
Public Works Director Fred Hurley, who also attended the meeting, said the water that has gone into the prison from the time it opened “never had any hits of any type,” referring to tests indicating any type of radioactive particulates.
“That is the only water that has gone into the prison from day one. In fact, the water is so pure from the source, we could almost run it without filtering or treating it,” Mr Hurley said. “That’s how pure the raw water is in our system. And because it’s a public water system, the only treatments we apply are required by law — a chlorine residual — that’s it.”
Although Newtown did not control the water system when the prison was being built beginning in 1989, Ms Culbert said that any level of contaminants in the water at the time would not change from being evident to being virtually pure just a few years later.
“And the sourcing of water at that time is the same source that we have now. The same wells — nothing has changed,” Mr Hurley said. “We took it over in 2004, so since then, when we became responsible for it, there has never been any indication at any time that there has been any problems.”
Several reports asserted that the Garner facility was on the same water system as Middle Gate School, which had to provide bottled water for a period of time in 2001 because test results showed the school’s water supply was well above state guidelines for uranium levels.
“Middle Gate had uranium from its own well,” Ms Culbert said.
The health director said to the best of her knowledge, the wells serving the prison were never connected with Middle Gate’s wells when the uranium issue developed, and once the school was connected to the same aquifer as the prison, the uranium issue at Middle gate dissipated.
That was also confirmed by Land Use Director Benson.
“When the school had their uranium issue, they were on their own wells,” Mr Benson said. “The uranium was localized; it wasn’t across the whole aquifer.”
“When they abandoned the wells at Middle Gate and connected to those same wells as were feeding the prison, the problem went away,” Ms Culbert said, adding that at the time of the (year) 2000 tests showing water at the school contained uranium levels more than eight times greater than federal guideline limits, it was not sharing the same water supply as the prison.
“It just didn’t — ever,” she said.
Another contention in published reports was regarding the prison’s water system being shut down around the same time as the school uranium concern.
“We did shut down that system, but it was not in response to a problem elsewhere,” Mr Hurley said of a project to clean water storage tanks. “It was simply in response to a request by the (state) Department of Public Health because it hadn’t been done in a long time.”
Radon On Site
Yet another reported assertion was that corrections officials knew the area where the prison was built in the early 1990s was known to have a high level of radon exposure.
The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Martin Minnella of Minnella, Tramuta, & Edwards in Middlebury and Milford, told the Connecticut Law Tribune that state officials knew in the early 1990s that the site chosen for the Newtown-based facility was contaminated, but continued to build anyway.
He is quoted in the Tribune as saying, “The state knew that the site was considered by the [Environmental Protection Agency] to be the number one radon site in Connecticut before they built it.”
The federal complaint states that, “According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the US Geological Survey, which evaluated the radon potential in the United States and developed a Map of Radon Zones to assist national, state, and local organizations and building code officials in deciding whether radon-resistant features should be applicable to new construction, Newtown, Connecticut is located in Zone One — Highest Potential (greater than 4.0 pCi/L),which designation reflects the average short-term radon measurement in a building without implementation of radon control methods.”
It further states that another former corrections commissioner and defendant, Lawrence Meachum, “decided to construct Garner in an area where indoor radon levels would likely exceed the EPA action level.”
Mr Hurley said the town has — and had — “no such experience.” Land Use Director George Benson concurred.
“That could not be known because radon can only be measured when it’s concentrated, like inside a building,” the land use official said. “You can’t go out and measure it in the air.”
Other reports Ms Culbert referenced involved an assertion that the prison site was built on a waste disposal site for the former Fairfield Hills State Hospital, “making the foundation more vulnerable to cracking and thus increasing the avenues for radon gas to seep into the facility.”
The Connecticut Law Tribune report previously cited additionally quoted the plaintiffs’ attorney Minella as saying the site of the Garner facility, “was used as a waste site by Fairfield Hills Hospital.”
“That wasn’t where the prison was,” Mr Hurley replied, “the hospital had a burn site where hazardous residue was found, but that was [in another location] long after the prison was built. It wasn’t within the footprint of the prison — that’s for sure.”
“The building where the incinerator was is still there,” Mr Benson said.