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NEAR SAFFORD -- The five inmates weren't told why they were being transferred to Fort Grant.
Four of them didn't really care. In prison, you take any change of scenery you can get, and Fort Grant, the frontier fort turned minimum-security prison at the base of the towering, pine-capped Mount Graham, is the nicest change of scenery in the Arizona prison system.
As the old white prison van rattled past Bonita Elementary School toward the mountain range in early March, Steven Abney, who had already done a short stint at Fort Grant for theft, pointed out the sparkling dome of the University of Arizona observatory on top of the mountain's 10,700-foot peak.
Abney then directed the eyes of fellow inmates 5,000 feet below to a hodgepodge of buildings at the mountain's base. Their own prospects were much lower. Those old buildings are your new home, he told them. Welcome to historic Fort Grant, site of Billy the Kid's first murder, central hub of the Apache Wars and now the middle-of-nowhere home to 700 of Arizona's least dangerous cons.
The five inmates did know one thing. They were surely brought to Fort Grant for some sort of construction project. All five had been heavy equipment operators before they were sent to prison.
At first, corrections officers told them they were working on some sort of Department of Agriculture project. Later, they heard they were building a new landfill for the Department of Administration, then the Department of Transportation.
As the weeks passed, though, Abney and his crew began to believe they were being duped. In fact, they soon discovered, they had been brought in to do a job nobody else would -- or legally could -- do.
Their job was to make the old Fort Grant dump disappear.
And as they scraped and plowed over a quarter-mile-long field amid a dust storm of their own making, the inmates constantly unearthed and pulverized massive chunks of building materials as well as bag after bag of medical waste, apparently from the prison infirmary.
Soon after work began, several inmates say, they began experiencing sore throats and nosebleeds that wouldn't stop. Others, including Abney, began having trouble breathing.
"It felt like I had razor blades in my lungs when I'd try to take a deep breath," he says now, a few weeks after his release from the facility. Abney, who had dealt with every sort of building material in his 20 years of construction work, assumed the worst -- that he and at least 15 other inmates were being used as slave labor to illegally dispose of asbestos without any protective equipment.
Turns out he was right. Tests on material smuggled out of the cleanup operation showed two types of asbestos, one of which is the most dangerous form of asbestos on Earth.
Department of Corrections officials as well as inspectors from the Department of Environmental Quality say that Abney and fellow inmates are mistaken or lying.
DEQ officials say they inspected the dump several weeks ago and found no asbestos. They and DOC officials also say asbestos shingles blown from Fort Grant buildings in a freak 2001 windstorm were removed by EPA-approved means -- with proper safety gear for workers and double bags for the asbestos, which was then shipped to the Butterfield Station Landfill, a sanctioned site for asbestos dumping.
But a month ago, knowing that nobody on the outside would believe an inmate, Abney began sneaking pieces of insulated pipe and other materials from the landfill and hiding them along the perimeter fence of the prison. New Timesand a Willcox inmate advocate who had befriended Abney retrieved the hidden materials.
Two weeks ago, an environmental laboratory hired by New Times, Phoenix-based EMC Labs, confirmed what Abney had feared -- that he had spent the previous two months breathing in the pulverized dust of two types of asbestos. One type, crocidolite, or blue asbestos, is considered the most hazardous form of asbestos in the world, according to Kurt Kettler, president of EMC Labs, which specializes in asbestos testing and removal.
Blue asbestos, medical researchers say, is 100 times more deadly than the more common white asbestos, which also was in the sample. Blue asbestos, which has been linked to deaths even after only days of exposure, made up between 5 percent and 10 percent of the asbestos used in the U.S. before the material was banned in the 1970s.
The samples retrieved by New Times also included a torn red-tagged medical waste bag.
A New Times reporter and photographer also observed broken piping similar to the type tested strewn in piles at the site of the landfill, which sits atop an aquifer only a half-mile up gently sloping rangeland from a country elementary school with 90 students. They watched as bulldozers bladed piles of debris, dust flying everywhere.
Werner Neubauer, a former Fort Grant correctional officer who recently took a job with an electric company in Willcox, confirms the inmates' contentions about the cleanup operation.