3 things you should know about the mosquito problem in Utah’s new prison

The Utah state penitentiary used to be located on an acre of coveted, buildable land in Draper before officials this summer opened a new one built on ecologically sensitive wetlands a few miles west of Salt Lake City International Airport.

It was a multi-year project that ultimately cost more than $1 billion. And the headache started long before all of the Draper inmates were transferred to the new prison in July.

Construction costs and foundation problems plagued the crews who built the 1.3 million square foot facility, delaying it by a year and sending the price nearly double the original estimate of $550 million.

The move-in date in July also fell in the middle of the mosquito season. As soon as inmates and staff arrived, they were bombarded by the biting bugs, which fed on their blood both inside and outside the facility while officers struggled to mitigate the swarms.

Officials knew mosquitoes would be a problem in the area. They’ve had years to prepare. However, records indicate they were not ready for the onslaught of insects as the occupants were “eaten alive”, according to a loved one.

Here’s what you need to know about the mosquito problem, the solutions some have suggested – and other implications of opening the prison on the edge of the Great Salt Lake wetlands:

1. Prison officials sought help to eradicate mosquitoes for months after moving in

Reports from the Prison Relocation Commission in 2015 indicate widespread pests including mosquitoes at the new prison site adjacent to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Salt Lake City Mosquito Control District officials also raised concerns shortly after the site was chosen.

The state has drafted a contract for mosquito control services for construction workers, but these services lapsed before inmates moved in, records show.

Email communications obtained through a disclosure request show that Troy Hollis, a prison maintenance supervisor, contacted the Mosquito Control District on July 27, about two weeks after the prison officially opened for help.

“We have received many complaints about the mosquitoes out here. I was wondering if you have anything planned for our area soon or if we could request treatment,” Hollis wrote.

Within days, Correctional and Control District officials scheduled a meeting to discuss the mosquito problem. They met on August 5th. Then officials wrote back and forth to finalize approval for a plane to fly over the prison and spray pesticides. The first transfer took place on August 13, records show.

[Read more: Inmates ‘getting eaten alive’ by insects at new Utah prison. Officials knew it could happen, records show.]

Mosquito Control District executive director Ary Faraji also sent correctional officers a list of recommendations for other ways to deal with mosquitoes, such as training prison staff on how to use traps and pesticides, and removing unnecessary vegetation and standing water.

Insect repellents like wipes would also be helpful, he said. Faraji checked with the state Department of Health and Human Services to see if they had any, records show.

“Thank you for sharing this with me,” an epidemiologist replied Aug. 10. “Unfortunately, we distributed the last of our DEET wipes last year and did not receive funding this year to purchase more.”

Records show prison officials were still debating the cost of mitigation services as late as September.

Correctional facility spokesmen told The Salt Lake Tribune that they were behind on mitigation efforts because they did not expect the mosquitoes to be such a problem.

2. Solutions are on the way – but there is still cause for concern

Prisoners did not have access to insect repellent in early November, according to correctional facility spokesmen.

Correctional officers have since identified a safe insect repellent (many are “extremely flammable”) that can be made available for inmates to purchase from the prison commissioner. Spokesman Liam Truchard said Nov. 10 that the access should solve many inmate problems with the bugs.

However, there is a chance that it will not be available in the next season. The product is backordered. “We expect it to be available ahead of next spring’s mosquito season,” Truchard said.

Truchard did not respond when asked if officers had considered giving inmates the repellent free of charge.

Spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted said the Correctional Authority will also pay to certify staff to use larvicide — a pesticide used in standing water to kill mosquito larvae, as opposed to adult mosquitoes in storm drains and other places where there is water stagnates. Certifications should be ready for the 2023 season, she said.

Staff are also testing different traps to catch both mosquitoes and other biting insects native to the wetlands, such as horse flies and deer flies.

This year, the prison mainly relied on pesticides to repel mosquitoes. That worries groups like Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, as well as those who manage nearby bird populations.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

dr Brian Moench, president and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said direct exposure to pesticides can have adverse effects on people and animals, despite assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency to the contrary. Spraying pesticides from airplanes also increases the likelihood they will drift over target areas and expose others, he said.

“The idea that we could ever have created a substance that could selectively attack pests we don’t like but leave everyone else untouched — that was never scientifically legitimate,” Moench argued.

Ella Sorensen, who manages Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary next to the prison, is concerned these pesticides could get rid of too many insects and destroy important parts of the region’s ecosystem that millions of birds depend on.

She also said response teams spraying pesticides on foot or from ATVs could disrupt bird habitat and nesting sites.

[Read more: Location of new state prison pits safety of inmates against the future of Great Salt Lake wildlife]

If the wetland ecosystem collapses, it would also damage the Great Salt Lake – where scientists have already seen signs the ecosystem is failing as it reaches record low water levels.

Moench argued that the best way to control mosquitoes and the spread of West Nile Virus is to eliminate standing water. But he said that was impossible locally.

“That just underscores the absurdity of trying to address an unsolvable problem with this type of arsenal,” he said.

3. Next year there will probably be more mosquitoes

Unusually hot temperatures extended this year’s mosquito season — while response teams caught more mosquitoes than they’d seen in the past five years, data shows.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The problem will worsen next year when Sorensen floods a recently donated tract of land within sight of the new prison to create more habitat for birds, and as climate change worsens and summers get longer and hotter.

Lawmakers, prison officials and others will finalize an agreement on future mosquito control in prison. Faraji has said the need for prison services this year has cost $100,000 more than he anticipated and charged his crews mitigating mosquitoes across the city.

“We’ve learned a lot in a short amount of time,” said Felsted. “We are confident that with everything we do and plan to do, we will be better off next year than we were today with mosquitoes.”

Meanwhile, on November 30, crews toppled a prison guard tower at the old prison site in Draper and began months of demolition and eventual arrival of a 600-acre site called The Point, which will include green space and pathways in addition to homes and offices, acreage and retail locations.

Alan Matheson, executive director of the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, said that the new development “would add another star to the constellation of must-see places in the state,” on par with attractions like Temple Square, ski resorts with “The Greatest Snow on Earth” and the Redrock Country in southern Utah.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/12/08/3-things-know-about-mosquito/ 3 things you should know about the mosquito problem in Utah’s new prison

Justin Scacco

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