Federal prisoners sue Atlanta over drinking water contamination claims

Aerial view of the U.S. Penitentiary in southeast Atlanta. (AJC file, 1994, Kevin Keister)
Aerial view of the U.S. Penitentiary in southeast Atlanta. (AJC file, 1994, Kevin Keister)

A group of Atlanta prison inmates recently filed a lawsuit against the city because officials allegedly gave them water tainted with toxins such as arsenic.

The lawsuit, filed in Fulton County court on Monday, involves allegations between 2018 and 2019. During that time, the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management provided water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing and other things.

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According to the lawsuit, the water supplied was “adulterated, polluted, and contaminated, in that the water contained, among other harmful substances, a certain poison and toxic substance commonly known as arsenic.”

A city spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that “while the City has not been served with any such lawsuit, initial testing shows there is no issue with the Department of Watershed Management services provided.”

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But the lawsuit alleges the water was contaminated, and the city knew “or should have known of the substantial risk of serious harm that would occur” to the inmates when they consumed the water. The inmates allege in the lawsuit that they never knew about the water pollution prior to February 2019, adding that the city has not tried to reduce the levels of toxins in the water.

The lawsuit names 36 present and former inmates at The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary as plaintiffs against the city. The attorney for the inmates declined to comment.

Arsenic is lethal at high levels and is sometimes used as a rat poison. At lower levels it can cause cancer.

The lawsuit stated the city’s actions violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act, as well as federal and state statutes governing the need to inspect, repair and maintain a safe water supply at the prison.

The inmates alleged they suffered “extreme and severe mental anguish and physical pain” from consuming the water, according to the lawsuit. They are seeking monetary damages, according to the lawsuit, which added that the inmates want a jury to prohibit the city from supplying the prison with water that is not cleaned through a filtration system that removes poisons from the prison water system.

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