Sunday, February 06, 2005
Alabama's prison system is notoriously flush with prisoners and short on cash. And the Department of Corrections has notoriously used these circumstances as excuses to justify what cannot be justified.

A great case in point: Donaldson Correctional Facility's illegal dumping of sewage in west Jefferson County waterways.

Donaldson has been violating its sewage-discharge limits for years, to the detriment of the Black Warrior River, its tributaries and the people who live near them.

We're not talking about small violations, either.

The prison is allowed to discharge 270,000 gallons of sewage a day into Big Branch Creek, which runs into the Black Warrior. But on some days, the discharge has been as much as 990,000 gallons a day - more than 3½ times the legal limit.

Prison officials say the violations are the result of having too many inmates - 1,590 of them in a prison built for 990 - and not enough money to overhaul the sewage system. That may explain how the problem began. But it doesn't explain why the problem continues today.

For that explanation, you must understand that Donaldson has had an ally in the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which is supposed to protect state waterways from pollution. In the face of serious and chronic illegal discharges from Donaldson, ADEM issued warnings from time to time and once even wrote a consent decree requiring the sewage system to be upgraded. But it never imposed a fine or otherwise forced the prison system's hand, even as Donaldson continued breaking the law.

Ultimately, a group called the Black Warrior Riverkeeper filed a notice to sue over Donaldson's illegal dumping of sewage. Afterward, the Alabama attorney general's office filed the same suit - which seems like a good move until you understand the likely intent and certain effect of the attorney general's suit was to abort the first lawsuit and shelter the prison system from any serious consequences.

That's a shame because, at this point, serious consequences are in order. Prison officials ought to understand that better than anyone.
They house thousands of inmates who can provide endless excuses for why they broke the law. But that doesn't make the inmates' victims any less victimized - or free offenders from facing the consequences of their actions.

Prison officials should hold themselves at least to the same standard they use for inmates. The Black Warrior River isn't any less polluted because Donaldson has reasons for exceeding its sewage limits. The Department of Corrections needs to fix Donaldson - or face the music.

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