WELCH - Federal and local officials vowed Thursday to fight a plan by President Bush to eliminate the $142 million already earmarked for the construction of a new federal prison in McDowell County.
"It is absolutely short-sighted for this White House to try to take away the dollars, already signed into law, for the new federal prison," U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said in a prepared statement. "This is a project that the federal Bureau of Prisons is firmly behind. The local community is firmly behind this project. And the need for new prison space is substantial. There is no logic in the White House plans."
Byrd said the White House, in its budget request of the Congress, unveiled plans to eliminate the $142 million already set aside for the design and construction of the federal prison in Welch.
"My work to secure that $142 million means that there would be no delay in design and construction of the new McDowell County federal prison," Byrd said. "Now, the White House wants to take that money away. I, for one, will not sit by and let that happen."
McDowell County officials were shocked and outraged by the news Thursday.
"It's certainly devastating news," Carl Urps, a member of the McDowell County Commission, said. "This is more than just McDowell County. This is all of southern West Virginia. This prison is going to help Mercer County, Wyoming County and McDowell County. This is something we will have to work to overcome, and with Sen. Byrd and Congressman Rahall's help, I think we can do that. We need to garner our efforts together, and try to give them some assistance. Maybe this is an issue that will draw us together instead of arguing among each other. I would hope that it would unify us and let us all come together for a common cause."
Byrd and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also sent a letter Thursday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales urging him and the Bush Administration to withdraw its plan to cancel funding for construction of the federal prison, according to Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin.
Gordon Lambert, president of the commission, said the Bush administration was "playing politics" with Byrd at the expense of the future of McDowell County.
"They are just playing politics with us, and with Sen. Byrd -- I'm sure," Lambert said. "We have total confidence in Sen. Byrd that this is going to happen. There is no doubt with Byrd, Rockefeller and Rahall behind it that this will happen. They have a lot of clout up there in Washington."
Rahall said he would join Byrd in fighting the plan by Bush to cancel the federal funds.
"I applaud Sen. Byrd for standing firm and fighting for a critical national need which will at the same time have a major impact on McDowell County's economy," Rahall said in a prepared statement. "We are working together, using every resource at our disposal, to avoid any delay in moving the McDowell County federal prison forward."
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Michael Truman with the federal Bureau of Prisons indicated in an e-mail that even though the Bush administration proposed cutting $142 million in prison construction, "the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons plan to proceed with the procurement process and are hopeful of being able to award projects" in West Virginia and other states.
Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, said Gov. Joe Manchin will be enlisted in the battle.
"I think it's a slap in the face of the people of McDowell County," Moore said of the White House move. "I think it is imprudent for the Bush administration to attempt to do this to the people of southern West Virginia. I, along with our local, state and national elected officials are working very closely to ensure that the budget remains intact, and the funding for the federal prison in fact becomes a reality for McDowell. We will contact our governor to enlist his aid and support toward ensuring that the federal prison in fact becomes a reality in McDowell County."
Byrd announced last August that the federal Bureau of Prisons had issued the final Record of Decision for the medium-security facility to be built at the Indian Ridge Industrial Park in Welch, near the McDowell and Wyoming County line. The project is expected to create more than 330 new jobs, and pump millions of dollars annually into the economy of McDowell County.
Byrd said the Record of Decision was the final step in the environmental review process, clearing the way for the BOP to proceed with the project.
"It is incredibly short-sighted for the White House to try to erase those dollars just as we get ready for construction," Byrd said. "This project is a win-win for the nation and for West Virginia. The United States, like it or not, needs more prison space. Prisons are overcrowded. Inmate populations are expected to continue to climb. McDowell County wants this facility for the new jobs and the new investments that will accompany it."
Urps said construction was set to begin this summer on the federal prison.
"We certainly worked toward their specs, and we as a commission have done exactly what they wanted in terms of developing the site," Urps said. "And according to the Federal Bureau of Prison people, this was the best site they've ever been offered."
Byrd said he plans to enlist the aid of a very powerful group of Republicans and Democrats in fighting Bush.
"The West Virginia lawmaker is working with Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee," a press release Thursday said.
The decision by the Bush administration to eliminate the federal funding comes on the eve of a day when county officials were planning to celebrate the official opening of a second state correctional center in Welch. The ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Stevens Correctional Center is scheduled for 4 p.m. today. Rahall, and other local, state and federal officials, are scheduled to attend.
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