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UPDATE: BORDC-Tacoma Challenges Detention Center Expansion

This article summarizes the nearly five-year effort of a group of citizens to shut-down a private detention center in Tacoma, Washington.

BORDC-Tacoma Challenges Detention Center Expansion

Heidi Stephens, Tacoma WA

History -

In the year prior to 9/11, Immigration Naturalization Services (as it was called at the time) was scouting locations for a detention/deportation facility within 25 miles of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Having been rejected by a number of smaller communities, they were welcomed to Tacoma, WA and offered two possible sites near Commencement Bay. The preferred site was near residential zoning (though not within existing neighborhoods) and the other site was in an industrial area known as the Tacoma Tar Pits, one of the top ten most contaminated Superfund Wastesites in the county.

I imagine how beautiful Commencement Bay was only few generations ago, yet this once pristine life-teeming tidal flat is now a toxin-seeping industrial park. Another ugly part of Tacoma's history was rounding up Chinese residents in 1885 then the Japanese in 1942. The city has expressed it regret for all of these actions... and yet, in the year 2000 they agreed to allow an immigration detention facility to be built on the highly contaminated industrial land.

In 2004, a small BORDC-Tacoma group was working to pass our Bill of Rights Resolution. Dec. 15 had been declared as Bill of Rights Day so one would have thought that voting to simply enforce upholding the Bill of Rights as an elected government representative would have been an easy resolution to pass. It wasn't. Language had to be removed and rewritten before it could even come to the City Council vote, and still it only narrowly passed. Since key members of BORDC-Tacoma had only moved to the area a few years prior, it wasn't until shortly after the resolution passed that we learned about this facility, now already under construction.

Since then, BORDC-Tacoma has been a consistent watch group of The Northwest Detention Center, tirelessly educating city and county officials about many the unapproved changes regarding length of detention, effect on communities, citizen oversight, number of and type of detainees.

Retaining rights and proper treatment of these citizens from other countries was our primary objective; however the more we learned about the private prison company and the land it was built on, the more we also became concerned about this corrupt business and the safety and health of people at the location. EPA studies indicate possible seeping of toxins (specifically benzene), and the Department of Ecology allowed for use of the land only if the cap containing the toxins was not disturbed. The location is also in a flood and lahar zone, and within proximity of railroad tankers of chemicals and a propane distributor directly across the street. This is not an area meant to house humans. The Federal contract expects cooperation with the city for an evacuation plan and regular drills. We can find no evidence of a plan being filed or drills taking place.

We have long asserted that Correctional Services Corporation (now taken over by GEO Group) has a history of OSHA violations, avoiding EPA regulation, disregarding of contract agreements and apparent dismissal of required code compliance. Recently it was discovered that GEO Group failed to do appropriate background checks on the guards at this location and fair wages have also come into question. Unfortunately, with business attorneys pressuring the city and masked as a "Federal facility" (which they are not) the city has allowed numerous exceptions and exemptions for this private prison.

Presently -

We were aware that Immigration Customs Enforcement was seeking contract renewal with a larger facility so GEO Group was looking to expand. Although we were an affected party expressing interest and even had public document requests submitted, we were not notified of GEO Group's application and city's approved permit for beginning construction. We discovered this only by viewing the large augers already on site. This concerned us greatly, since contaminants were not removed from the location, only covered over. Boring more than 15 feet down would be breaching the restrictive covenant which we brought to the attention of the Department of Ecology.

Although we weren't made aware of the permit till after it was too late to object to the SEPA Addendum, we were able to barely squeak in under deadline our appeal the city's "Determination of Non-Significance" which we believe the city based on inaccurate information. The appeal sited GEO Group's misrepresentation of themselves as a Federal agency (which prompted a fraud investigation by ICE) and the city's lack of full information considered before allowing construction to commence (including environmental, health and safety concerns). Along with the appeal, we asked for an immediate stay of action to halt construction until these issues were addressed.

Even though the City of Tacoma is one of the parties involved in this situation (as the Lead Agency), it is the City Manager who appoints the Hearing Examiner to review the appeal. The Hearing Examiner asked for all parties (including GEO Group) to reply to three questions regarding his determination of jurisdiction. The deadline for this was Dec. 18th. Despite BORDC-Tacoma preparing and sending our replies from out-of-state in the midst of an Arkansas ice storm, on the last day GEO Group's attorney asked for an extension due to upcoming "holidays" and snow in Tacoma. We didn't see any correspondence from the City Attorney except for the Hearing Examiner to include that office in his granting of a three-week extension (longer than was even originally offered for the initial reply). GEO Group and the city were then able to review our response before crafting theirs. BORDC-Tacoma filed a Motion of Reconsideration and again requested that construction be stopped until these matters were addressed. There was no response to this from the Hearing Examiner.

Meanwhile, snow run off and heavy rains caused flooding in the Pacific Northwest quite near where this facility is located. Tacoma came very close to a serious situation this month (see:  http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/story/589276.html ) when water came within inches of topping the decayed levees near the detention center. Still, no emergency plans are known of yet: there is no rehearsed evacuation for over 1,000 people and no identified shelter to take them to. The flooding did flush a host of waste products into the nearby bay. We alerted the City of Tacoma, Dept of Ecology, and EPA to look at this before the flood but little was done.

BORDC-Tacoma continues to monitor and document activity surrounding the area, particularly a bioswale and an outflow which drains directly into Puget Sound. There is disturbing evidence of accumulated petrochemicals in both locations. Because of our efforts, the EPA did an immediate investigation and has scheduled the 5-year review for this month (January 2009) and the Department of Ecology has confirmed that GEO Group is in violation of the environmental protective Restrictive Covenant due to not disclosing their plans and the type of construction occurring on this property.

It is not clear what the outcome of the Department of Ecology's revelation will be. The EPA report has been delayed by the City of Tacoma's slow release of documents. The Hearing Examiner has declared he does not have jurisdiction to address our appeal, which means we may ask for reconsideration and/or take the matter to Superior Court which we are in the process of considering upon receipt of critical documents we are still waiting for.

Updates and more information can be found via this "Urban Target Folder for the NWDC" website:


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