EPA Investigates Possible Inmate Exposure to Asbestos at Kansas Prison

February 16, 2010

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether inmates and employees at the Topeka, Kan., women’s prison were exposed to asbestos during building renovations, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Miskell said the EPA’s attention is focused on the renovation of one building in 2005.

The Capital-Journal reported that former employees involved in asbestos abatement at the prison stated improper exposure occurred during rehabilitation of several structures.

Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing diseases including lung cancer.

Miskell said the department is “cooperating fully” with the EPA.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment received a request in November from a Topeka lawyer to examine whether regulations were followed when Topeka Correctional Facility staff members and inmates used mechanical grinders to pulverize asbestos-laced flooring into a powder.

That request, submitted by Topeka lawyer Keen Umbehr, led to an EPA inspection in January.

Umbehr wrote that inmates and employees were ordered to use brooms and shovels to collect the hazardous debris and dump it into metal trash containers at the construction site. Typically, asbestos waste is bagged for disposal.

The letter said individuals involved in the project weren’t properly trained to perform abatement work, weren’t issued protective clothing and weren’t informed of potential health risks.

Federal officials said the passage of time complicated the inquiry.

“The big problem is looking back. It’s difficult to substantiate a lot of things,” said Randall Whipple, an EPA investigator involved in the Topeka prison inspection.

The investigation comes amid concerns about illegal sexual relationships at the prison, chronicled by The Capital-Journal, as well as contraband trafficking by employees and inmates at the prison, which houses 550 female prisoners and employs 225 people.

Gov. Mark Parkinson ordered an independent evaluation of the state prison system in October, 10 days after The Capital-Journal began publication of the series detailing allegations at TCF. The evaluation was conducted parallel to a state audit ordered by the Legislature.

Information from: The Topeka Capital-Journal,

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