TACOMA, Wash. -- If it wasn't for Timothy Smith's intense opposition to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, the state might never have noticed that the private company that owns the facility was violating environmental rules.
The detention center -- the federal government's prison-like complex in Tacoma that holds suspected illegal immigrants, often for months -- was built near the former site of a coal gasification plant that left behind heavy pollution in the soil.
According to the state Department of Ecology, Boca Raton, Fla.-based The GEO Group violated an "environmental covenant" by not informing the state before moving any of the soil, which may be contaminated.
The company group was required to notify the state if it planned to do any construction on the site that could cause a release of contamination to the environment, said Joyce Mercuri of ecology's Toxics Cleanup Program.
"The GEO Group did not inform us about the expansion," Mercuri said.
Prompted by Smith's questions, the department informed the GEO group of the violation and is now working with the company to properly handle construction the site to meet the state's requirements.
A representative for GEO, though, said the company was not aware of any violations.
"Construction for the expansion at the facility began under the required permits issued by the City of Tacoma," said Pablo Paez, GEO's spokesman, in an e-mail. "We are not aware of any official findings of any violations by the state Department of Ecology."
Smith's tip to the Department of Ecology was part of a passionate battle he has waged this past year against the GEO Group and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, accusing them of environmental violations and other misconduct.
Ultimately, Smith -- a member of the advocacy group Bill of Rights Defense Committee and an Army veteran -- wants the detention center closed.
But GEO has begun working on a 30 percent expansion of the 1,000-bed complex that will add nearly 600 beds on the eve of new contract bids with the federal government.
The detention center's expansion comes at a time when federal authorities have cracked down on illegal immigration in this region. Deportations from Washington, Oregon and Alaska increased by 35 percent in 2008 compared to 2007, totaling more than 10,000, according to ICE.
Most of those people arrested in the region were held and processed at the Tacoma detention center.
For now, Smith's goal is to slow down the expansion by asking questions and pestering all parties involved.
The 46-year-old activist has waged his battle against the expansion on various fronts, lobbying the Tacoma city council to move against the expansion. He has raised questions on how ICE's contract proposal almost exactly matches GEO's expansion plans, which ICE has said was not solicited by the government.
Smith also monitors the news for missteps by GEO, and keeps track of their earnings reports, on top of doing surveillance on at the actual work site.
"When one fights injustice, when one breaks down the barrier of fear and xenophobia, it takes time," Smith said. "I think we're pretty much at a breakthrough with the whole situation. It's not the time to quit. It's time go forward full steam."
Smith can claim a small victory. He says GEO will not be able to meet its goal of opening the detention center by September, the month in which the new contract proposal from ICE called for having the expansion operational. Paez, GEO's spokesman, declined to comment on the expansion's schedule.
"We want to treat people like we want to be treated," Smith said. "This is a society of justice and that has been thrown out the window in Tacoma."
The detention center opened its doors five years ago. Originally, the GEO group was not the owner, taking over the facility after it acquired Correctional Services Corporation in 2005. The current contract with ICE expires on April 23, 2009.
Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma said that the city is "stuck" with the detention center for now, a facility he would have been opposed to hosting in the city had he'd been in government at the time it was built.
Baarsma said part of the problems arising from the detention center is that a private company operates it.
Last year, a GEO administrator pleaded guilty in federal court to hiring nearly 100 security guards without background checks, something ICE officials didn't catch for two years.
"You have no accountability, no culpability" Baarsma said of the contracting practices.
Worldwide, GEO operates nearly 66 correctional facilities in the U.S, Australia, South Africa and England. It has a total capacity of about 62,000 beds. According to ICE, the daily cost to house a detainee at Tacoma is $95, and there are about 1,000 detainees in the facility at any given time.
Lorie Dankers, ICE's spokeswoman in Seattle, said the agency was not aware of any violations by GEO.
"We have not been contacted by Department of Ecology or by GEO," Dankers said. "There's no indication that the (Tacoma detention center) doesn't meet our requirements."
Smith quickly disputed Dankers' statement, promptly showing off e-mail messages between himself and ICE officials in Washington, D.C., discussing the environmental violation.
On the Net:
Bill of Rights Defense Commitee, http://www.bordc.org/index.php
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, http://www.ice.gov/
The GEO Group, http://www.thegeogroupinc.com/
Also visit our "WA State News & Activism" section.
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