Report: high arsenic levels in water at prison in Grimes

by Aleksandra Bush, originally posted on March 17, 2016


GRIMES COUNTY, Texas- The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is getting a national response but contaminated water has reportedly been found in the Brazos Valley. According to Environmental Integrity Project out of Washington DC, the water at the prison in Grimes County has high levels of arsenic. KAGS news reporter Aleksandra Bush spoke with the organization who says Wallace Pack Unit’s  water has been contaminated for a least a decade.

When someone goes to prison they lose their freedom, but at one prison unit in grimes county inmates have also lost access to safe tap water.

“More than twice the federal limit of arsenic in drinking water for a long period of time,” says Tom Pelton, the director of communication for thew Environmental Integrity Project.

A study done by the Environmental Integrity Project found that  65 Texas communities have water that contains higher levels of arsenic than the federal safe drinking water act allows.

“If you drink water with arsenic that’s more than the federal limit. you are facing an increased risk of cancer,” says Pelton.

There are almost 1,500 prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit, where arsenic levels have been twice the limit for a decade. The limit of arsenic in water since 2006, is 10 parts per billon. The Wallace Pack Unit’s long-term average is 25 (ppb).

We reached out to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. they said the Texas Commission on Environmental quality has determined that the water is safe to drink. The commission told us the water is not an immediate health threat. (full statements below)

“If you smoke one cigarette it will not immediately kill you but if you smoke cigarettes for ten years, you will have an increased risk of cancer,” says Pelton.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice sent us a statement saying they installed a new water filtration system in 2006 but that it has yet to lower levels to the federal requirement. They said quote “we are currently in the design phase of a new filtration system.”

“Don’t drink the water,” says Pelton.

The Environmental Integrity Project recommends the more than 80,000 Texans who live in these high arsenic level communities drink bottled water. The prison right now does not have that option.

“You might give them a sentence of ten years in prison but you are also giving them a sentence of cancer,” says Pelton.

The Department Criminal Justice did not give a timeline as to when that new water filtration system will be installed. The Wallace Pack Unit was the only facility in our area, in this report, where high levels of arsenic was found in the water.

From the Texas Department of Criminal Justice:

“The federal government’s standards regarding arsenic have changed significantly over the last 10 years. After the standard was lowered in 2006 from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb, the agency installed a water filtration system at the Pack Unit. The system lowered the levels near the new standard but did not fully satisfy the new federal requirement. We are currently in the design phase of a new filtration system. The water is frequently tested and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has determined that it is safe to drink.”

From the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality: 

“TCEQ follows EPA guidelines in arsenic notifications, including using the exact language in the letters as suggested by EPA, as well as using EPA drinking water standards, sampling methods, and analytical methods.  The potential danger of arsenic intake is very specifically detailed in the notification letters.

The TCEQ agrees with USEPA that arsenic levels typically found in the United States, specifically Texas, do not pose an immediate health threat.  Drinking water standards are set to protect people drinking 2 liters of water per day for 70 years.  The fact that typical Texas arsenic drinking water levels are not an immediate health threat is supported by the National Academy of Sciences and USEPA’s independent Science Advisory Board.  Studies of arsenic in drinking water in US populations (with much lower arsenic drinking water levels) do not consistently find associations with cancers.  The health effects associated with arsenic were characterized in studies of Taiwanese populations chronically exposed to arsenic levels 10 to 20 times higher than those found in Texas.

Out of the 65 water systems cited in the study, all but two are currently under enforcement, or have undergone enforcement,  either by the TCEQ, EPA, or Texas Attorney General.

The TCEQ also provides technical assistance to help water systems that are not complying with arsenic drinking water standards.  That includes assisting these water systems in finding funding opportunities to enable them to meet standards.”


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