Immigrant detainees are being held at an EPA Superfund site

The area has been flagged for the hazards it poses to human health and the environment.

An EPA Superfund site, this one in Colorado. CREDIT: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images
An EPA Superfund site, this one in Colorado. CREDIT: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Detained people seeking asylum and protection in the United States are being held within at least one Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site, exposing them to toxic sludge and other hazardous waste.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acknowledged that as of the end of June, up to 1,495 detainees were being kept at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, according to a CNN report published Wednesday.

The detention facility, which essentially serves as a prison, is located within a Superfund site — the designation given to areas contaminated by hazardous waste and selected by the EPA for cleanup due to the danger they pose to both human health and the environment.

The facility is located within the Tideflats, an industrial district within Tacoma. For years, fossil fuel development polluted the soil around the area, prompting the EPA to take action almost 30 years ago. The area is still heavily polluted and has been deemed unfit for residents.


Comments given to the city of Tacoma regarding regulations for the Tideflats in 2017 reveal residents have documented strong smells in the area along with side effects like burning eyes and throats. The soil in that area contains hazardous substances that can cause cancer and other diseases.

Such complaints go back years, but the Northwest Detention Center opened nonetheless in 2004, despite safety concerns. Both a methanol plant and a liquified natural gas facility are located nearby the facility. The site remains under EPA supervision and both that agency and the Washington Department of Ecology allowed the creation of the detention facility under two conditions: that groundwater not be used and that a cap sealing dangerous substances underground not be disturbed.

At present, the facility is one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country, able to hold as many as 1,575 people at a time. Residential construction is barred in the area and accusations of sub-par food and medical treatment have prompted more than a dozen hunger strikes over the years from detainees, according to CNN.

In July 2017, over 100 detainees launched a hunger strike protesting their conditions, citing abuse from guards, food ridden with maggots, and labor-law violations. That strike’s demands closely mirrored another protest at the facility, which took place in 2014.


A 2008 report from the Seattle University School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic corroborated that numerous human rights abuses have occurred at the detention center. ICE strongly disputed the report at the time.

The GEO Group, a private Florida-based detention and privatized corrections company, oversees the Northwest Detention Center. At least two lawsuits are currently ongoing against the company for labor-law violations, namely a $1-a-day detainee work program.

Data obtained via public records requests by the group Freedom for Immigrants from ICE indicates that an outsized number of reported physical and sexual assaults have been reported at the Northwest Detention Center specifically.

In an email to CNN, the company downplayed any controversy.

“Our employees are proud of our record in managing the Tacoma ICE Processing Center with high-quality, culturally responsive services in a safe, secure, and humane environment,” company spokesperson Pablo Paez told the publication. “Members of our team strive to treat all of those entrusted to our care with compassion, dignity, and respect.”

ThinkProgress has reached out to ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and both the EPA’s Superfund and Washington state regional offices for comment on the ongoing decision to house detainees at the facility. At time of publishing, only the EPA had responded, advising that DHS be contacted for comment instead.

Tens of thousands of undocumented people have been long been detained by ICE and border patrol agents in the United States, but the issue has reached fever pitch in recent weeks.


Revelations surrounding the Trump administration’s decision to separate parents from their children sparked outrage last month. Other components of the White House’s hardline approach to immigrant detention also drew censure, including an initially-floated plan to hold some 47,000 detainees in a military Superfund site outside of San Francisco.

The Concord Naval Weapons Station, which was used to store heavy explosives until a little over 10 years ago, is contaminated with poisonous substances like arsenic and mercury. The area is also without any real sewage or plumbing infrastructure. Swift backlash surrounding the decision led to its ultimate reversal in late June, a relief to environmental and immigration advocates. 

It isn’t clear how thoroughly the Concord site was considered by government officials assessing potential detention sites. According to a memo obtained by Time magazine in June, a number of other Superfund sites, in states including Arizona and Alabama, have also been suggested as potential locations for detention centers.