3 things to know about the mosquito problem at the new Utah prison

The site sits on ecologically sensitive wetlands.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thousands of birds fly over Kennecott’s Inland Sea Shorebirds Reserve and the adjacent Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, near the new state prison.

The Utah state prison used to sit on acres of coveted, developable land in Draper before officials this summer opened a new one, built atop ecologically sensitive wetlands a few miles west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.

It was a multi-year project that ultimately cost more than a billion dollars. And headaches started well before all Draper inmates were transferred to the new prison in July.

Construction costs and foundation issues plagued crews building the 1.3 million-square-foot facility, pushing it a year behind deadline and ballooning the price tag to nearly double the original $550 million estimate.

The July move-in date also fell in the middle of mosquito season. Once inmates and staff arrived, they were bombarded by the biting bugs, which feasted on their blood both inside and outside of the facility as officials scrambled to mitigate the swarms.

Officials knew mosquitoes would be a problem in the area. They had years to prepare. Yet records indicate they weren’t ready for the onslaught of bugs as inmates were “getting eaten alive,” according to one loved one.

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

1. Prison officials were looking for help to eradicate mosquitoes for months after move-in

Reports from the Prison Relocation Commission in 2015 note prevalent pests including mosquitoes at the new prison site, which abuts Audubon bird sanctuary lands. Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District officials also raised concerns soon after the site was selected.

The state drew up a contract for mosquito abatement services for construction crews, but those services lapsed before inmates moved in, records show.

Email communications obtained through an open records request show that on July 27, about two weeks after the prison officially opened, Troy Hollis, a maintenance supervisor at the prison, reached out to the mosquito abatement district for help.

“We have been getting alot of complaints about the mosquitoes out here, I was wondering if you guys had anything scheduled for our area anytime soon or if we could request treatment,” Hollis wrote.

Within days, corrections and abatement district officials planned a meeting to discuss the mosquito problem. They met Aug. 5. Then, officials emailed back and forth to finalize authorization for a plane to fly over the prison and spray pesticide. The first flyover happened Aug. 13, records show.

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

Mosquito abatement district executive director Ary Faraji also sent corrections officials a list of recommendations for other ways to deal with mosquitoes, like training prison staff to use traps and pesticides, as well as getting rid of unnecessary vegetation and standing water.

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

“Thanks so much for sharing this with me,” an epidemiologist responded on Aug. 10. “Unfortunately we distributed the last of our DEET wipes last year and did not get funding this year to purchase more.”

Prison officials were still discussing costs for abatement services in September, records show.

Corrections spokespeople told The Salt Lake Tribune they were behind on mitigation measures because they didn’t expect the mosquitoes to be such a problem.

2. Solutions are on the way — but there’s still cause for concern

As of early November, prisoners did not have access to bug repellent, according to corrections spokespeople.

Corrections officials have since identified a safe bug repellent (many are “extremely flammable”) to make available for inmates to purchase in the prison commissary. Spokesperson Liam Truchard said Nov. 10 that access should solve many inmates’ issues with the bugs.

However, there is a chance that it may not be available next season; the product is backordered. “We anticipate it will be available before mosquito season next spring,” Truchard said.

Truchard didn’t respond when asked if officials had considered providing inmates the repellent for free.

Spokesperson Kaitlin Felsted said that the corrections department will also pay to certify staff to use larvicide — pesticide used in standing water to kill mosquito larva, as opposed to adult mosquitoes in storm drains and other places where water stagnates. Certifications should be ready for the 2023 season, she said.

Staff are also testing various traps to catch both mosquitoes and other biting bugs native to the wetlands, like horse and deer flies.

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

(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 negative impacts on both people and animals, despite assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency that state otherwise. Spraying pesticides from planes also increases the chances that they will drift beyond target areas and expose others, he said.

“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.

Ella Sorensen, who manages Audubon’s Edward L. & Charles F. Gillmor Sanctuary adjacent to the prison, is worried that those pesticides could get rid of too many insects and destroy vital parts of the area ecosystem that millions of birds rely on.

She also said that abatement crews spraying pesticides on foot or from ATVs could disturb bird habitat and nesting grounds.

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

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

The best way to control mosquitoes and the spread of West Nile virus, Moench argued, is to eliminate standing water. But he said that’s impossible to do at the site.

“That just illustrates the absurdity of trying to attack an unsolvable problem with that kind of arsenal,” he said.

3. There will likely be more mosquitoes next year

Unusually hot temperatures extended this year’s mosquito season — at the same time that abatement crews were capturing more mosquitoes than they’d seen over the last five years, data shows.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The problem stands to get worse next year, when Sorensen floods a recently donated swath of land within eyesight of the new prison to make more bird habitat, and as climate change intensifies and summers get longer and hotter.

Lawmakers, prison officials and others are set to finalize an agreement to pay for mosquito mitigation at the prison going forward. Faraji has said that the need for services at the prison this year cost $100,000 more than he’d anticipated and strained his crews, who mitigate mosquitoes across the city.

“We have learned a lot in a short period of time,” Felsted said. “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.”

Meanwhile, crews toppled a prison guard tower at the old prison site in Draper on Nov. 30, commencing months of demolition and the eventual arrival of a 600-acre site called The Point, where green spaces and trails will be built alongside housing, office space and retails sites.

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