Federal Prison Recycling Program Exposed Workers to Toxins

A government investigation has found that inmates and employees involved in an <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/Unicor-Federal-Prison-Toxic-Electronic-Waste-Recycling">electronic waste recycling program run at federal prisons throughout the country may have been exposed to toxic chemicals. While the investigation, conducted by the US Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG), could not find any direct link between illnesses and the electronic waste recycling problem run by a Unicor, it did not rule out the possibility that such a link could be established in the future.

Federal Prison Industries, which is known by its trade name “Unicor,” is a government corporation within the Federal Bureau of Prisons that provides employment to staff and inmates at federal prisons throughout the US. Unicor sells a variety of consumer products and services, such as office furniture and clothing, and industrial products, such as security fencing and license plates. As of June 2010, Unicor had 103 factories at 73 prison locations, employing approximately 17,000 inmates or 11 percent of the inmate population.

According to an article in The New York Times, the Unicor electronic waste recycling program operated out of ten federal prisons: Dublin, California; La Tuna in Anthony, Texas; Elkton, Ohio; Fort Dix, New Jersey; Marianna, Florida; Texarkana, Texas; Atwater, California; Leavenworth, Kansas; Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; and Tucson, Arizona. Two — the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., and La Tuna in Anthony, Tex. — had ended those operations by the time the inspector general’s field investigation opened in 2006. The Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton, Ohio, stopped recycling electronic waste in 2008.

As of 2009, Unicor employed 1,000 workers at seven prisons processing 39 million pounds of electronic materials. The types of electronics recycled in the Unicor program may have exposed inmates and employees to a variety of toxins, including toxic metals, such as cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic, and beryllium. The OIG probe was initiated in response to, among other things, complaints from both inmates and employees that Unicor’s electronic waste recycling practices were not safe and had made Unicor staff and inmates sick. As a result of these complaints, the OIG launched its investigation of the program

Released last week, the OIG investigation determined that that Unicor management of the electronic waste recycling program resulted in numerous violations of health, safety, and environmental laws, regulations, and Federal Bureau of Prisons policies. The OIG investigation found that Unicor staff members often failed to perform hazard assessments on new electronic waste operations or did so incorrectly, and important health and safety information was not shared with Bureau of Prisons officials. Even after the hazards of electronic waste recycling were clearly identified to the leadership of Unicor’s Recycling Business Group in 2002, Unicor was slow to make necessary changes, the OIG said.

The consequence was that Unicor and Bureau of Prisons staff and inmates were needlessly exposed to cadmium and lead – two dangerous toxic metals – during recycling activities, and that parts of some Bureau of Prisons facilities where recycling activities had previously occurred without proper engineering and hygiene controls were contaminated with these metals and required remediation, the OIG report said.

The report, which totaled more than 400 pages, noted that Unicor had halted the most dangerous of the recycling activities, smashing glass, in 2009, the New York Times said.

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