The site of the current (and future) youth detention center on 12th Avenue and Alder Street sits on top of contaminated groundwater.
The site of the current (and future) youth detention center on 12th Avenue and Alder Street sits on top of contaminated groundwater. King County

Opponents of the Central District's new youth detention center have protested the project for years on the grounds of steep racial disparities in the juvenile justice system and lasting damage from the school-to-prison pipeline. But now, human rights advocates are making a new argument against the juvie: the presence of toxic chemicals in the groundwater where the facility is to be built.

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Last week, a group of advocates for prisoners' human rights wrote to Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council, asking them to deny a land use permit to build King County's new Children and Family Justice Center. Paul Wright, executive director of D.C. non-profit Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), expressed concern over a groundwater plume of trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene—both used in dry cleaning—mentioned in the county's environmental analysis.

The EPA has characterized trichloroethylene as a human carcinogen, and tetrachloroethylene as likely to be carcinogenic to humans. "There is strong evidence that trichloroethylene can cause kidney cancer in people and some evidence for trichloroethylene-induced liver cancer and malignant lymphoma," according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Studies on dry-cleaning workers exposed to tetrachoroethylene have also shown links to different types of cancer.

The juvie detention center plot used to be a residential area. Over the course of the 20th century, however, the same plot hosted a gas station, a dry-cleaner, and an auto-repair shop. Before anyone knew anything about the chemicals they were using, workers typically dumped excess chemical waste almost anywhere. As a result, dry-cleaning chemicals like tetrachoroethylene and trichloroethylene are some of the most common contaminants found in local soils and groundwater.

This doesn't necessarily make building the new detention center insurmountable. But according to the county's own environmental analysis of the plot, removing them won't be simple.

This is what the plume of contaminated groundwater looks like underneath the juvie.
This is what the plume of contaminated groundwater looks like underneath the juvie. Department of Ecology

Over the last six years, the county has also examined the youth detention center for levels of contamination and submitted groundwater monitoring reports to the state. According to one technical report from 2013, consultants hired by the county found levels of tetrachloroethylene in groundwater "at a concentration 30 times the [Model Toxics Control Act] cleanup level" in one monitoring well near the south end of the property. At the same time, the consultants also found that for workers exposed to airborne contaminants at the juvie, the presence of the toxic solvents presented a one in 100,000 cancer risk, even in a worst-case chronic exposure scenario. For youth residents—based on a 24-hour stay of up to six weeks—the cancer risk was one in 1,000,000. In other words, the risk is low at the current above-ground facility. That said, the state still noted in a 2015 letter to King County that "further investigation or cleanup action will need to be done to comply with Washington State laws and regulations."

Prisoner rights advocates are also worried about the fact that some of the new youth detention facilities will be built underground.

"This is particularly alarming because this facility includes a number of sections below grade, and presumably surrounded by contaminated soil including 'secure youth holding cell areas, secure adult holding cell areas, food service [and] facility management offices,'" Wright's letter to the mayor states. "We are concerned at the implications of keeping youth incarcerated in cells surrounded by carcinogens."

Along with the letter to the mayor and the City Council, the HRDC attached a memo from Robert K. Simon, a toxicologist and favorite expert witness for the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. "My review of the documents provided and reviewed to date has indicated that this proposed site has numerous environmental red flags that would indicate that this is a very bad idea for this site under the guidelines proposed to date," Simon wrote.

Simon noted that the county's own analysis anticipated that asbestos, lead-based paint, and PCBs "may be present in the buildings." Simon wrote in the letter that the county should survey the buildings to find out exactly how many of those contaminants are present. "It is not enough and not acceptable professional conduct just to say 'if we find it we shall deal with it,'" he said.

The county rejects the idea that they may be putting residents of the youth detention center at risk. "The current Youth Services Center and the future Children and Family Justice Center facilities will be safe from contaminants because of the appropriate mitigation measures we’ve identified," a spokesperson for the Children and Family Justice Center wrote in an e-mail. "The contaminants studied during the extensive environmental review process in 2013 and 2014 are commonly encountered in urban environments and will be effectively mitigated. The new facility is being designed to high standards and will pose no health risks."

Ahmed Gaya, a spokesperson for the HRDC's Prison Ecology Project, says that answer isn't good enough. "We asked the county to provide a detailed plan showing how children and employees would be protected from toxics and carcinogens," he said. "The fact that the problem is common doesn't make it less serious. Saying the problem will be 'mitigated' isn't presenting a plan."

After following up with the county, a spokesperson for the project said that a vapor barrier—something that sort of resembles a bath tub—will be placed into the ground and will lock out contaminants. It's called a "geo-seal" and is meant to block out contaminated vapors from seeping through the facility.

Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project and also a member of the HRDC's prison ecology steering committee, says that this is a good sign, but not comprehensive. "It's one of the things we always ask for, but there should be testing and analysis beforehand," Kupferman said. "It's a missing part of the project, not doing enough investigation. We still find that their offer is in some ways deficient."

Kupferman added that his law firm finds that in institutional cases like these, monitoring alone isn't enough. "When there isn't enough time for analysis, they'll discount it and keep on going," he said. "And often you'll go to court and they'll say once construction has started it can't stop. And that's why it's important to have a comprehensive health and safety plan for construction."

With the master use permit decision in the city's hands—a decision is expected soon—council members aren't saying much about whether they believe the HRDC's complaints warrant another look at the permit. "For now I can say that the letter raises some serious concerns and we’ve asked [Department of Construction and Inspections] to look into them," Jasmine Marwaha, legislative aide to Council Member Mike O'Brien, said. A spokesperson for mayor's office said the office has asked the Department of Construction and Inspections to provide an update on the permitting process.

In the meantime, the DCI has said that it's still in the "review process" and "will work with the County to determine what mitigation steps will be needed for us to issue a permit."

This post has been updated.