Out of Control: Chapter 16–Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink
or The Buck Stops Here
or Passing the Buck
or Where Does the Buck Stop? 1990

The work around the water was a true collaboration between people on the inside and out—Marion political prisoners Tim Blunk, Alan Berkman, Alan’s friend Dick Clapp, Rev. Yasutake, Jan Susler, Madison activists, our Committee, and of course the National Committee. Shortly after the November conference Steve went to Boston where the American Friends Service Committee set up a showing of our video. Steve invited Alan Berkman’s friend, Dick Clapp, to attend, and he did.

In December (1989) we received a memo from Rev. Yasutake reporting on a phone conversation with Carl Reeverts of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. Reeverts had suggested contacting Chuck Suffin, head of all water programs for Region V of the EPA. Reeverts also suggested that if there were an independent sample of the water with evidence of health safety violations, this could be used as evidence. Yasutake wondered if the EPA would have the authority to directly analyze the prison water based on complaints and concerns of prisoners and supporters, and if they then enforce compliance.

Up until now CEML had been responding to emergency after emergency without a coherent framework for action. This seemed to several of us in the Committee to be a less than optimal way of proceeding. With this in mind, in the beginning of January, Steve and I wrote a proposed Twelve Month Plan for work around Marion. We suggested that throughout the winter we continue to collect signatures on the petition regarding the water issue. Ninety-one petitions had been completed from the U.S. and 70 from Europe, mostly from Sweden and Denmark—about 1300 signatures.

We could do much better than that and proposed a goal of 10,000. We would ask many different organizations to help by including it in their mailings. Announcing a public goal and deadline might help motivate us collectively. For the spring we proposed a national day of activities. In Washington, D.C. a group of people, led by Rev. Yasutake’s Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience organization, would form a religious and civil delegation to deliver petitions to BOP Director Quinlan. We hoped that our friends in Madison, Champaign-Urbana, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and San Juan would also participate in one way or another. Our Committee and the National Committee would organize a program in Carbondale/Marion, a delegation would go to the prison, and we would attempt to have an impact in the area of Marion itself. We would commit to three trips to the region before May.

Political prisoner Bill Dunne wrote a substantial piece about the history and current (1990) reality of Marion for Convictions magazine. Although much of the physical abuse had receded to the background, the situation was psychologically torturous. We would continue our more general educational work to end the lockdown, updating our basic brochure and perhaps announce and build for direct action on the anniversary of the lockdown in the fall at the BOP in Washington, D.C. if the situation remained unchanged. That was our 12-month plan.

The same day Steve and I presented the plan to the Committee, Jan Susler (with input from several political prisoners at Marion) sent a letter to Kastenmeier requesting that the Congressman go to Marion and speak with the prisoners about the conditions, then organize a hearing followed by “a strong Congressional response.”

In January there were a flurry of letters about the water between CEML and several of the political prisoners. At the same time, Committee members and others continued to receive letters of denial regarding the water situation. Assistant Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu wrote to Kimberly Fitzgerald chastising us for using “misleading data based on biased facts.” His letter assured her that the water was safe (the Canadian geese still use it as a nesting area!) and passed the buck like all the other bureaucrats. “If your group would like to test the water being distributed by the Crab Orchard Reservoir treatment facility you may wish to contact the reservoir authority. Let me assure you that the Bureau of Prisons makes every effort to maintain the existing safe and humane environment for both staff and inmates.”

While we had trouble getting any of the bureaucrats to spend a moment’s time seriously considering the problem, as opposed to writing what would turn out to be false denials and ignorant assurance (spoiler alert!), two of the political prisoners took the task very seriously. By this time, both Alan Berkman and Tim Blunk had been moved out of Marion temporarily and into the D.C. Jail awaiting trial. Tim had written the earlier piece on health concerns at Marion. And now Alan and he were discussing the matter, and Alan was digging into the water issue.

Alan, a physician, wrote a letter pointing out some of the weaknesses in our understanding of the water situation. He understood the science better than we did. We agreed with Alan, and on the first of February Steve wrote to Alan suggesting that he and Dick Clapp write up a current analysis of the water situation which our Committee could then use as a central part of our work in the ongoing campaign. And, of course, if it were to be written, ASAP would be best.

One week later Steve received a letter from Dick Clapp. At the time he was the Director of Environmental Health for a non-profit research institute and had been the Director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry for the past nine years. Dick had in his possession a copy of a 1986 federal report with recommendations regarding the water. “After working my way through the U.S. EPA Chicago office where they knew nothing about it, I wound up in the Illinois EPA drinking water quality office. The person I talked to said he thought there had been no follow-up to the 1986 recommendations for continued monitoring of chloroform and trihalomethane (TTHM) levels. What’s more, this bureaucrat said there was no requirement to do such monitoring of drinking water supplies that serve less than 10,000 people. The currently safe levels (maximum contaminant levels) for chloroform in drinking water are being revised downward. This is because of research showing increased bladder cancer in those exposed over long terms to low chlorinated water. I have several of these articles, if you want to see them. I think Marion water should be tested for this.”

Dick wondered if we wanted to pursue this. The answer was a resounding “yes!” Also that week Steve reported on a conversation with Gary Latsch, the attorney in the class action water suit. Latsch informed Steve that the previous summer the government had hired a consulting firm to test the water (although not the water in the prison itself) and it was declared safe. He’d also heard that the government was to change the water supply from Crab Orchard to Rend Lake. Although the suit was still pending, Latsch felt the testing was accurate and was close to settling the case if they’d agree to regular testing. Steve and Jan sent Dick Clapp every last piece of information at hand about the water situation.

On February 17, Alan wrote saying that he and Dick were working on the suggested piece. He reiterated that the federal EPA passed the buck to the State of Illinois EPA who in turn passed the buck—“less than 10,000 people affected, not responsible.” Alan said he had asked Dick to research the short-medium-long term effects of chloroform/trihalomethanes. “As soon as we know that, I’ll try to do a draft of an article.”

On February 14, BOP Director Quinlan sent the Committee a letter reassuring us once again that all agencies agree—the State Environmental Protection Agency, the Crab Orchard Water district, the Public Health Service—that the water is SAFE!. However, the letter continued, “Although the drinking water meets all standards and is safe to drink, the water supplied by Crab Orchard Lake is often discolored and has a peculiar taste. In an effort to improve the water supply to the institution the Bureau of Prisons is presently selecting an engineering firm to drill a series of wells at the Marion facility which will provide a new domestic water source for the prison. This project is scheduled for completion within the next 18 months. This water supply will also be continually monitored and tested for purity and compliance with state and Federal standards.” (See Quinlan’s letter and our response).

In other words, it’s not broke but we’re going to fix it. In due time. Now get off our backs. That ploy failed. A week before we had agreed to pursue an aggressive strategy around the water. Steve proposed a timetable of activities leading up to May activities around the country. He acknowledged that the goals of our January 12-Month Plan might have to be revised: if we were to “help things happen in Carbondale/Marion/St. Louis, DC . . ., Madison and perhaps . . . Champaign-Urbana, we probably couldn’t “get things done in SF, NY, or even Chicago.” Nor could we meet our goal of 2,000 petitions (16,000 signatures) before the May actions.

Alan and Dick completed their research and decided to focus on the TTHM angle, not the PCBs, because, with limited access to the data, it was better documented than the PCB claim. “The TTHM [chloroform and trihalomethanes] stuff is real and is validated by their own studies.” Their article “Suppressed Government Study Documents Health Risks of Water at Marion Prison” reported that “The water levels of chloroform at U.S.P. Marion are more than a thousand times higher than the established safe limits. Correspondingly, the statistical risk of cancer is a thousand times greater than the one case/million designated ‘acceptable’ by the EPA.”

The Committee produced a new Fact Sheet On Toxic Water at Marion reporting that chloroform is a well-established carcinogen linked to bladder, kidney, colon, and rectal cancer. Robert Wyler, the prisoner at Marion who initiated the class-action suit against the water, had since died of cancer of the kidney! What’s more, we noted that, according to experts, the water supply could be changed within two months instead of 18. If not, we added, the prisoners should be given bottled water in the interim.

In March we again sent all information in our possession to Congressman Kastenmeier inquiring as to the reason for the 18-month delay and requesting support for the use of bottled water in the interim. Rather than respond to pressure, the Bureau of Prisons seemed to be tightening its grip. Once again our postal communication with the prisoners was obstructed. Then in April it was announced that all visitors, including lawyers, would now have to be fingerprinted in order to visit at USP Marion. This was now in addition to the usual procedure of signing in, showing photo ID, passing through a metal detector, receiving an invisible ink stamp, and submitting to a special photo process, as well as the searching of lawyers’ briefcases. We wrote our usual letters of protest to Rep. Kastenmeier.

Next: Spring Bursts Out All Over  
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