Kentucky

Feds to withdraw approval to build prison on former Kentucky coal mine

The preferred site in Letcher County identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a high-security prison is a spot that was flattened by surface mining.
The preferred site in Letcher County identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a high-security prison is a spot that was flattened by surface mining. bestep@herald-leader.com

The federal government plans to withdraw approval to build a maximum-security prison on a former surface mine in Letcher County.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons confirmed Wednesday that it will publish a notice of the decision next week.

The agency’s formal approval to build the prison is called a record of decision. The Bureau of Prisons issued that record of decision for the Letcher County prison in April 2018, clearing the way for the government to buy 800 acres for the facility.

However, the agency said Wednesday it had decided that more analysis is needed on whether there are significant new circumstances or information related to environmental concerns about the project.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents the county, said in a statement that he shares the frustration of local residents over the development, but described it as a delay, not the end of the project.

Rogers’ office said there is nothing in federal rules that would prevent the Bureau of Prisons from re-issuing the record of decision at some point, even if it is rescinded for a period.

Rogers said leaders at the Bureau of Prisons had assured him they would continue fighting a lawsuit that figured in the delay. Rogers said the agency also told him it will continue internal work needed for the project to go forward.

Rogers has pushed for funding for the project for years because of the promise of more than 300 jobs in a county where the coal industry, once the backbone of the economy, has withered.

President Donald Trump’s administration has tried to rescind funding Congress approved for the project, but Rogers led efforts to reject the moves.

More than $500 million remains available to build the prison, Rogers said Wednesday.

A group of federal prisoners sued last year to rescind the record of decision, arguing that prisoners weren’t provided information about the environmental assessment.

The lawsuit also argued that building a prison on the site would hurt the environment and endanger prisoners because of pollutants at the site.

The lawsuit is pending.

The prison project has some local detractors, including people concerned about tying the local economy to a prison and people opposed to the country’s incarceration policies.

However, a local planning agency started the drive to bring in the prison in order to create jobs, and the vast majority of residents who submitted comments about the project said they favored it.

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