By Dee J. Hall
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Some inmates, staff and visitors at two Wisconsin state prisons say the water there is unsafe to use because of lead and copper contamination.
At Fox Lake Correctional Institution, 55 miles northeast of Madison, about a dozen inmates told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that the water at the 56-year-old prison is routinely yellow or brown with dark sediment and an unpleasant flavor.
At Waupun Correctional Institution, 70 miles northwest of Milwaukee, one longtime officer said he and other staff were not aware of high lead levels in the prison’s water in 2014, although officials insist legally required notifications were made that year when the facility violated the federal lead rule.
Prisoner advocate Peg Swan told the Center she has been hearing from Waupun inmates for about a year about high lead levels in the water at the 150-year-old prison.
Fox Lake has been working to meet terms of a 2014 consent order from the state Department of Natural Resources to lower levels of lead and copper in its water, which have been detected on and off for at least seven years.
Lead and copper contamination is caused by corrosion from aging plumbing.
Spokespeople for the state Department of Corrections said the agency has employed several strategies, including closing one well and fixing three others at Fox Lake. Fox Lake will soon begin water treatment to prevent corrosion and regular monitoring for metals, said Jeff Grothman, the DOC’s legislative affairs director.
At Waupun, water treatment also is being used. Compliance testing at Fox Lake Correctional is scheduled to begin this month.
Fox Lake also has excessive levels of naturally occurring manganese, a metal that is not considered dangerous to adults except in high doses, but it can turn water brown and give it a bad taste and smell.
The prisons have not supplied either staff or inmates with an alternative water source, although inmates are allowed to purchase bottled water and staff can bring it in. Officials said both prison water systems now meet federal drinking water standards.
The Center’s ongoing Failure at the Faucet investigation into risks to Wisconsin’s drinking water reported, however, that those standards do not always protect public health when lead or copper is present in a water system.
For example, Miguel Del Toral, a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, found that concentrations of lead in water can vary widely even in samples taken from the same source on the same day. Del Toral’s study concluded that the existing federal Lead and Copper Rule, part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, “systematically misses high lead levels and potential human exposure.”
Water troubles at Fox Lake
Since 2008, 18 water samples at Fox Lake have exceeded the maximum contaminant level of 1.3 milligrams per liter for copper, and six samples exceeded the maximum contaminant level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead, according to the DNR database.
Although they insist the water is now safe, Fox Lake officials have told inmates, staff and visitors about the high lead and copper levels and advised them to run the water for 15 to 30 seconds before using it for drinking or cooking, or when a faucet has been unused for more than six hours. (The state DNR recommends running the water for two to three minutes under those conditions.)
Several Fox Lake inmates and the family of an inmate said the water remains yellow or brown even after prolonged flushing. Some inmates asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
Beverly Walker, whose husband, Baron, is serving time at Fox Lake, told a Madison gathering organized by the faith-based advocacy group Wisdom in February that she has heard “horror stories” from inmates about the water.
“Recently I was informed by my husband that the water was so dirty, they couldn’t wash dishes so they were giving the inmates paper plates to eat their food off of,” said Walker, of Milwaukee.
One of the 13 inmates who wrote to the Center about water problems said he buys cases of 24 16-ounce bottles of water for $7.60 from the prison canteen — the only alternative water source. Similar cases of water can be purchased for roughly half that amount at Woodman’s Markets.
Inmates who cannot afford bottled water, Walker told the group, “would fill cups up and it would be dirty, dingy and metal pieces floating in the water. Now this is after they have let the water run for about an hour.”
DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab said she could not confirm the story about the paper plates. A DNR spokesman, George Althoff, could not identify the sediment but said whatever it is would show up in water tests.
Inmate lawsuit alleges harm
Inmate Ryan Rozak insists the water at Fox Lake Correctional is making him sick. He is suing corrections officials in federal court, claiming they are violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Rozak blames the drinking water at the prison for diarrhea and other health problems. The water, he said, “messes up my body, bones, mind.”
Rozak recently got two court-appointed lawyers to represent him in his 2015 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, with Judge James D. Peterson noting that the case presented “complex scientific public health issues.”
High levels of copper in drinking water have been linked in adults to nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Exposure to very high levels can cause kidney and liver damage.
Another Fox Lake inmate told the Center in a letter that he is concerned about using the prison’s water for cooking. Heating water can concentrate the harmful effects of lead, which in adults can include lowered immunity, kidney failure, gout, high blood pressure and nerve damage.
“Many times we need to let all the faucets run for hours trying to clear the water from brown to clear,” according to the inmate, who said he works in Fox Lake’s kitchen. “I worry about the pasta and rice we cook, as this must be cooked in our dirty water.”
Other Fox Lake inmates reported skin rashes, which they blame on water from the prison. Residents of Flint, Michigan, also reported skin rashes after that city switched to a highly corrosive water source that sent spikes of lead from pipes and fixtures into residents’ drinking water. Michigan officials are studying whether the rashes and water problems are linked.
Lead, copper in water at Waupun
Drinking water samples from Waupun Correctional have exceeded the federal standard 10 times for lead and four times for copper since 2008, according to the DNR drinking water quality database.
Utilities — including the Fox Lake and Waupun prisons, which operate their own water systems — can have up to 10 percent of water samples test above maximum levels without violating the federal Lead and Copper Rule.
Althoff said the “vast majority” of the 140 water samples taken since 2008 at Waupun have tested below the federal limits. The prison hit the 10 percent threshold in 2014, he said.
That year, Waupun was required to notify water consumers of the high lead levels, and the DOC provided a notice that it said was posted at the prison for inmates and emailed to staff in November 2014. The prison added phosphate to the water to prevent corrosion.
Brian Cunningham, who has worked as a correctional officer at Waupun for 22 years, said he has no recollection of being notified of excessive lead levels in 2014.
In September, high concentrations were again detected at Waupun, including one sample that registered at 120 ppb — eight times the federal limit. Despite the high value, Althoff said the prison remains in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.
Cunningham, president of the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement, said the prison did notify staff of the high lead level last fall. He added that “inmates have complained about the taste and the color of Waupun water since I’ve started working there.”
Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Gilman Halsted also contributed to this report.