Inmates win lawsuit to get safe drinking water at Wallace Pack Unit
by Jake Walker, originally posted on June 25, 2016
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says the agency plans to appeal a recent ruling ordering the water supply at a Navasota prison unit be replaced after inmates won a lawsuit claiming they had no choice but to drink arsenic-laden water to cool off in the summer months.
U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison on Tuesday gave the Texas Department of Criminal Justice 15 days to provide water at the Wallace Pack Unit that complies with the Environmental Protection Agencies standards for safe drinking water.
Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas prison system, said the federal government’s standards regarding arsenic have changed “significantly” over the past 10 years. In 2006, the EPA lowered the acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. Clark said TDCJ installed a new water filtration system at the Pack Unit shortly after the change, which lowered the levels near the standard but did not fully satisfy the new federal requirement.
“The water at the Pack Unit is safe to drink according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Department of State Health Services,” Clark said in a prepared statement. “Although this is not an emergency and the water is safe to drink, we have designed a new filtration system which has been approved by TCEQ, and the final installation is expected in early 2017.”
In an email from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Andrea Morrow, a media relations manager for the agency, said TCEQ does follow the same EPA regulations for arsenic and enforces those rules, but that the agency also employs its own scientific experts to research various potential dangers to Texans. Morrow wrote that arsenic levels typically found above 10 parts per billion are not an immediate health concern.
Edwards said TDCJ’s own experts acknowledged that drinking this water at the quantities suggested results in an increased risk of cancer, however slight.
“When you take away someone’s liberty it comes with responsibilities, and the most basic responsibility is that you provide shelter and water that is safe,” Edwards said. “That we’re having an argument about that is embarrassing.”
The Wallace Pack Unit is a medical and geriatric facility that has a high population of inmates who are over 65 or have serious medical conditions, the order reads. The six inmates named as plaintiffs alleged that TDCJ was subjecting the inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit to extremely high temperatures during the summer months, without air conditioning in the housing areas and with limited access to air conditioning elsewhere. The inmates said the primary measure TDCJ used to lower the risk of heat-related injuries is encouraging inmates to drink copious amounts of water, however, evidence presented in the hearing showed that the drinking water at the Wallace Pack Unit has contained between two and four and a half times the amount of arsenic — a known carcinogen — permitted by the EPA.
Jeff Edwards, an Austin-area attorney who represented the inmates, said the TDCJ is not taking the federal judge’s ruling seriously — that the water supply is a danger and needs to be corrected. Edwards said it reflects TDCJ’s “indifference” to the welfare and safety of the inmates.
He said TDCJ has spent more money litigating this case than it would have cost to replace the water supply. The ruling is designed to teach TDCJ what to do in housing prisoners humanely, but Edwards said the response from the prison system is disappointing.