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Arizona Department Of Environmental Quality Investigating Water Contamination At Douglas State Prison

A new report from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality shows the state is concerned that a well supplying water to a state prison in Douglas could be contaminated.

In a Water Quality Inspection Complaint Report released to KJZZ, ADEQ details a recent investigation of the well, which is owned by Cochise County.

Cochise switched to a new well June after an outage left the prison without water for several days.

The report says ADEQ “received complaints from families of inmates about the water smelling like diesel fuel and being discolored” in October after the switch to the new well.

The Arizona Department of Corrections previously confirmed water at the prison had a “noticeable petroleum odor and taste” after Cochise changed wells.

In response to the complaints, ADEQ investigators visited the prison and took water samples. While the samples taken showed acceptable levels of contaminants, inspectors noted several deficiencies with the new well that the county will have to fix.

“Well 1’s pump does not directly sit on a slab/pedestal,” the report states. “The pump sits on elevated casing. Well 1 did not have a sanitary seal between the water pump base and casing.”

The report specifically calls attention to “an old gas station less than 300 feet” from the new well. Spokesperson Erin Jordan "the ADEQ Waste Programs unit is investigating the potential for an underground leaking storage tank in the area. They have contacted the county water system and are looking into that possibility."

The report goes on to detail another potential source of contamination of the new well: “System reportedly has a problem with oil from the pump oiler seeping into the water.”

The old well, currently supplying the prison after Cochise County was forced to switch back, was also cited for several deficiencies.

History Of Water Problems At Douglas Prison

After a water outage at the prison in June, Cochise County switched to a new well as the source of drinking water in September for the more than 2,000 people incarcerated at Douglas.  During that outage, the prison supplied inmates with bottled water and used portable toilets and sanitation stations for several days.

The Arizona Department of Corrections said employees drained the storage tank at Douglas and flushed water lines throughout the complex. But inmates told their families the water was burning their skin after showers and causing diarrhea.

A woman who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation told KJZZ her husband and many other men in his unit at the Douglas prison suffered health problems after drinking and bathing in the water.

“He said the water was really oily and the inmates were instructed by Department of Corrections officials to let the water run before the used it,” the woman said. “He would get acne from the oil and he said that his legs were itchy.”

Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder said no inmates have filled out Health Needs Request forms for medical treatment or grievances related to the water problems. The woman whose husband lives at Douglas said the inmates are not speaking out because they fear retaliation.

“They’re too afraid to say anything because they know it will come back on them,” she said.

Addressing the latest ADEQ report, department spokesman Wilder said “ADC’s position is that it will not accept water service from well #1 again unless and until the County, working with ADEQ, can prove and certify that water sourced from that well is safe and clean to drink, and free of any bad odor or taste.”

“The Department continues to closely monitor for additional information and for solutions proposed by the County to address and resolve this matter,” Wilder said.

In a letter from then interim Department of Corrections Director Joe Profiri to Cochise County Administrator Edward Gilligan, Profiri stated his concerns about “the County being able to consistently supply water to Arizona State Prison Complex Douglas.”

Profiri cites six instances from June to November 2019 of water outages or loss of water pressure to the prison.

“When the water services are compromised,” Profiri wrote, “not only do we lose the ability to draw water for human essential needs, but there is no fire protection for the complex. This truly is a life, safety issue that should be treated as an urgent matter.”

In a response letter, Gilligan acknowledges the serious nature of the outages but defends the county’s efforts to upgrade the water system supplying the prison.

Gilligan said the County is “fully committed to building and maintaining a quality water supply system. Nevertheless, I believe the prison’s long-term water needs would be best served by the expansion of the city’s municipal water system.”

While offering no time table for this new arrangement, Gilligan said he had “confidence the Counties’ Facilities Department and its contracted water service providers have the capacity to address matters before the escalate to a crisis.”

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.