Each spring, the first of millions of mosquito eggs hatch in the marshy wetlands west of the Salt Lake City airport.
Until recently these hatchling larvae would metamorphose, first into pupae and then into their six-legged, winged adult phase. They flew around, searched for blood meals from the local fauna, laid more eggs and mostly left people alone — since there weren’t many people out there, said Ary Faraji, executive director of the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District.
Yes, people work in the rows of massive, gray distribution warehouses near these wetlands, but they can go home when their shifts ends. And they have access to bug repellent.
It’s a different logistical situation for the new prison, Faraji said. The sprawling concrete complex further west from the warehouses opened in July, and the thousands of people now incarcerated there don’t have many options for mosquito relief.
In the late summer heat, when traps near the prison caught tens of thousands of mosquitoes, abatement district data shows, inmates did not have access to bug repellent, advocates and officials said. Loved ones of inmates told The Salt Lake Tribune that some prisoners have skipped meals to avoid the mosquitoes. Others have slept in long sleeves, pants and socks to lessen insects’ opportunities for bites. Many who can’t afford long clothes have been covered in painful bumps, relatives said.
When Karen Thompson visited her son in September, she said she was bitten several times. A guard attending the entrance gate was swatting away bugs as he worked, she said. He mentioned he’d forgotten his repellent at home.
Thompson had emailed the mosquito abatement district in July.
“My concern is that now there are 4,000-plus incarcerated persons and employees at the prison[,] the mosquitos need to be addressed and controlled … The new white interior walls,” she wrote, “are already blood splattered from swatting feasting adult mosquitoes.”
State officials knew they were moving the prison into prime mosquito territory when they chose the site six years ago, records show. They paid to ensure crews constructing the prison wouldn’t be as bothered by the bugs for two years, according to an abatement contract signed in 2019.
Yet, they moved incarcerated people to this site without an effective plan to keep the mosquitoes away from inmates, records indicate.
Documents obtained by The Tribune show that despite years of notice, Department of Corrections officials were still finalizing abatement measures — including authorizing a plane to fly over the prison to drop pesticide, and finding training for prison staff to use pesticide themselves — a month after the facility opened. They were still discussing costs for abatement services in September, emails show.
Corrections communications director Kaitlin Felsted declined multiple interview requests with corrections officials. She and spokesperson Liam Truchard answered questions via email.
Together, Felsted and Truchard said prison officials didn’t plan for these mitigations because they didn’t expect the mosquitoes to be such a problem.
They said they had not heard of mosquito complaints from construction crews prior to the prison opening. When inmates and staff arrived, mosquitoes swarmed the area. The corrections spokespeople said this was because “we suddenly had thousands more people at the site breathing out carbon dioxide, which mosquitoes are attracted to.”
As of Nov. 10, the Department of Corrections still hadn’t agreed to a new memorandum of understanding with the abatement district. According to a written statement from Truchard, prison officials are “close” to finalizing the new agreement.
The abatement district charged the Department of Corrections around $24,000 for 2022 abatement services, according to emails sent between officials in September. This figure was based on an estimation for services for other similarly sized, nearby facilities.
Faraji said additional airplane flyovers this season ultimately cost about $100,000 more than anticipated, though the abatement district doesn’t intend to seek additional payment, he said. He’s also spread thin on staff, who are devoting much of their time to the prison, leaving fewer abatement personnel to focus on greater Salt Lake City.
He worries that an unfair tax burden is falling on the capital city, which funds the abatement district, since the corrections department is a tax-exempt entity. It’s a sentiment he’s felt for years, news reports show, ever since the state announced this parcel of land for the new prison.
Utah Sen. Jerry Stevenson, who co-chaired the Prison Relocation Commission, said in the coming weeks, state officials will need to get together to figure out how to fund mosquito abatement services at the prison. The issue isn’t novel, he added. Davis County deals with it. So do others who live near the Great Salt Lake.
“All around the lake, we have those kinds of issues. We just need to take care of them,” he said. “We can sure take care of them for this population.”
Extent of the problem
Mosquito season typically runs from May to September or October, depending on if the weather stays warm — and the end of the latest season was particularly hot. Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District data also shows that this year, mosquitos were more abundant despite the ongoing drought.
Faraji said as climate change intensifies, the number of mosquitoes will likely keep increasing — and so will the need for abatement services as summers get warmer, and nearby conservationists continue flooding the mosquito-producing wetlands they maintain to support birds.
[Read more: Location of new state prison pits safety of inmates against the future of Great Salt Lake wildlife]
Reports provided to The Tribune show planes have conducted 18 “adulticide” operations, which aim to kill swaths of mature mosquitoes, within what they call the “prison buffer zone,” an area that includes the prison and the grounds surrounding it, through mid-October. That’s compared to 12 the year before, according to abatement district data.
Faraji said that even when airplanes drop pesticides outside of that buffer zone, the work benefits those living and working at the prison.
While the number of total operations this year appears similar to 2021 — 50 this year, compared to 53 last year — Faraji said this year crews have conducted operations further west than in recent years, and instead of focusing on killing mosquito eggs, more of these operations have focused on killing adult mosquitoes.
Data also shows that the abatement district has sprayed nearly 65,000 more acres this year than last — with 203,646 acres alone treated by an airplane spraying pesticides meant to kill adult mosquitoes.
Faraji said the droplets of pesticide his crews spray are smaller than the width of a human hair, using less than an ounce of liquid for an area the size of a football field. These droplets are light enough that they stay aloft until they land on a mosquito in flight, then dissipate after a bug is killed.
He said the abatement district’s practices follow Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, which say they ensure crews can spray for mosquitoes “without posing risks of concern to the general population or to the environment”
“In fact, we often apply our products even well below the maximum label rates allowed to ensure an additional level of safety,” Faraji said.
Dr. Brian Moench, president and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said despite assurance from mosquito abatement officials and the Environmental Protection Agency, direct exposure to pesticides can have negative impacts on both people and animals, and that spraying pesticides from planes increases the chances it will drift beyond its target and expose others.
“The idea that we could have ever created a substance that can selectively attack pests that we don’t like, but it will leave everybody else unaffected — that was never scientifically legitimate,” Moench argued.
His group has advocated for abatement districts to stop spraying aerial adulticides altogether, saying exposure, especially to fetuses and infants, can lead to neurological and brain disorders and is more harmful than the West Nile virus or bothersome bites that spraying aims to control.
“I would say that if you followed that prison population that is chronically exposed, you’re going to find what other studies have found — that is higher rates of neurodegenerative diseases in adults, things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, clinical memory loss, poor cognition,” Moench said.
He said he’s particularly worried about pregnant inmates or staff.
Truchard said the prison gets notice from the abatement district before a flyover, “so we can take precautionary measures on our end.” Thompson, with the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, also said that inmates are notified before crews conduct flyovers, in case prisoners want to be inside when pesticide droplets fall.
Immediately afterward, the mosquitoes let up, Thompson’s son told her. But it never lasts.
Christina McCain’s son told her that when he was being held in the maximum security area, the mosquitoes weren’t so bad. Once he was moved to general population, though, it was “horrible,” since more people were coming in and out of the facility, he said.
That was one of the boons of the new prison site — inmates are given more access to natural light and time outside, officials have advertised.
But McCain said that during the worst of mosquito season, her son often chose to remain indoors during morning and evening meals, so he wouldn’t have to go outside.
“Anybody that’s outside is getting eaten alive by mosquitoes,” she said. “So, he’s just not wanting to deal with that.”
Bobbi Hamberlin said her boyfriend’s arms were covered in bites until he finally saved up enough money to buy a long-sleeve shirt from the commissary. He also started sleeping in his socks.
Both worried about the possible spread of mosquito-borne diseases, like West Nile virus.
So far, Felsted said corrections staff haven’t documented any West Nile cases in staff or inmates at any Utah prison. Truchard added that inmates are required to go to the dining hall, unless they have a medical exception.
“Many of the complaints and concerns in walking to the dining hall included requests for repellent,” he wrote. “The leadership teams from the housing units have met with inmates to discuss their concerns and now that we are making repellent available, many of the concerns are being resolved.”
Repellent was not available to inmates in the commissary as of Nov. 10, according to Truchard.
Still, Hamberlin was so concerned about these and other issues, she reached out to the Magna Mosquito Abatement District for help.
Executive director Ryan Lusty responded, saying: “The main issue with mosquitoes and the new prison is simply location. The state built the prison in the middle of a swamp.”
“Mosquito districts exist to control mosquito populations,” Lusty continued, “and while we do our best to control, as humans move into places like this, it makes the job more difficult.”
‘This is the place’?
At the June ribbon cutting in for the years-behind-schedule facility, officials lauded the site — including the benefits they said it would provide inmates and the cash that would roll in to develop the former prison site in Draper.
Sen. Stevenson quoted Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who famously founded Salt Lake City.
“As Brigham Young said, ‘This is the place,’” he said. “This is the right place for the Utah State Prison.”
It’s also a ripe habitat for mosquitoes, whose presence in the fragile wetland ecosystem is vital for the survival of migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, and, a few steps removed, the Great Salt Lake itself.
Before the state purchased this marshland for the new prison, the parcel was used for agriculture and grazing, with mostly undeveloped natural space for miles. That was part of its allure, according to the state’s Prison Relocation Commission.
Officials wrote in a 2015 report that it “includes sufficient developable land and offers an ample footprint” for the prison. It also noted “natural buffers of undevelopable conservation land on the north and west.”
They liked its easy access to Interstate 80 and proximity to Salt Lake County’s hospitals, courthouses and jails. They hoped that adding utility lines for the prison could prime opportunities for more development in the future.
The report identified “several challenges” at the site, including “complex subsurface conditions,” which ultimately helped to nearly double projected construction costs from $550 million to $1.05 billion. The nearby “environmentally sensitive areas, including conservation and recreation areas, wetlands and canals” were also an issue.
That shallow and standing water is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. The commission noted that the bugs and other pests, like midges and biting deer flies, were “prevalent.”
Appropriate mosquito mitigation, the report noted, would cost $160,000.
‘It takes time to get everything done’
On Aug. 12, Faraji sent corrections officials 16 recommendations to help reduce mosquitoes at the new prison. The first was flying over and spraying pesticides that kill adult mosquitoes. The happened for the first time on Aug. 13.
“I’m hoping this provides enough relief where some of the other recommendations below may not be needed,” Faraji wrote in an email. “But only time will tell.”
Other options included treating storm water pipes, catch basins and the moat around the facility with larvicides. Faraji said standing waters in these areas would “definitely produce mosquitoes.” The question was whether corrections staff would learn to treat them, or if mosquito abatement personnel would. Inmates in work programs could also learn how to do this, he said.
He also recommended a series of traps and xeriscaping to get rid of native grasses that provide shelter for mosquitoes. Keeping grass cut shorter and changing when it’s watered could also help.
So would repellent wipes for inmates, he said. He wondered about costs and if the state could help pay for abatement at the prison.
“If you need one or two inspectors dedicated to surveillance/control at the prison site moving forward, my budget just can’t absorb this,” Faraji said, “and I’m hoping that we can discuss this with the higher ups to provide some additional funding.”
Felsted, the corrections spokesperson, said they’ve implemented “many” of those recommendations and are working over the winter to install more traps.
Beginning in spring 2023, she said corrections staff would be certified to use mosquito larvicide at the facility.
Before officials approved which type of repellent would be available for inmates to purchase, a DOC team reviewed various products for safety concerns and found that many were “extremely flammable and were not safe to provide to our incarcerated population.”
Inmates should have access to an approved bug spray in the commissary — they’d need to buy it — within “the coming weeks,” Felsted said Oct. 20, after the close of this year’s mosquito season. Truchard didn’t respond when asked whether the prison had considered providing the repellent for free.
The department, Felsted said, also paid “a couple hundred dollars” for mosquito foggers, which staff used and “benefitted staff and inmates alike.”
“It takes time to get everything done as per Mr. Faraji’s recommendations,” she wrote.
Next year, as drought is projected to intensify and the nearby bird sanctuary plans to flood more ponds than in years past, the mosquito problem stands to intensify.
“We are hopeful that with all we are doing and planning to do we will be better off next year than we are today with mosquitos,” Truchard wrote.
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