Federal inmates have sued to block a $444 million plan to build a new federal prison in a sensitive region of Appalachia ravaged by coal-mining, reports Courthouse News Service. Expected to house a population of 1,216, the new U.S. penitentiary would sit in a hamlet of Letcher County, Ky., that is otherwise home to fewer than 100 people. The complaint from the Abolitionist Law Center labels the site a public health risk, because a mountain peak was literally lopped off the land years earlier so that it could be mined for coal. Mountain-top removal (MTR) was used throughout Appalachia “not because it was necessary but because it was the cheapest way to access coal in the area,” the suit says, adding that, “development of the project would permanently degrade the already vulnerable environment.
Joined by 20 fellow inmates, plaintiff Robert Barroca brought the suit in Washington, D.C. Prisoners say the construction plans demand court intervention because the Bureau of Prisons shirked its responsibilities under the National Environmental Protection Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. “Despite the clear and uncontroverted public health risks” in the area, the prison bureau “without a reasonable and legal justification continues to move forward with its plan to build … and unnecessarily risk the health of its employees and inmates in its custody and control,” the complaint says. Some county residents, haunted by the economic downturn of a failing Appalachian coal industry, are eager to see the prison. Elwood Cornett of the Letcher County Planning Commission asked critics “what solutions they have to offer that will create over 300 sustainable, well-paying jobs in a region that is struggling to rebound?” The suit blames the construction plan on an effort to satisfy the “pork barrel politics” of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY).