Showdown Expected Over Supermax Sewage Spill

Union officials representing correctional officers at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado are seeking arbitration with the government over a sewage spill that is allegedly contaminating the air and making workers sick. Colorado Confidential has learned that the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) local 1302, the labor union for the Florence officers, will be entering arbitration with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in January, over a 2003 sewage spill the happened under the facility nearly five years ago.

Arbitration refers to a hearing conducted outside of the court system by a impartial referee to settle disputes.

Labor representatives claim that the BOP has balked on properly cleaning up sewage spill under the prison, even after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) instructed the agency on the correct way to contain the mess.

On top of that, workers at the facility have claimed that because of the spill, the air is contaminated and making people sick:

A veteran correctional worker at ADX who wished to remain anonymous also claims that the spill continues to be a problem years later.

“There’s quite a few areas that are contaminated below the facility. They don’t wanna fix it flat out,” says the worker. “It gets in through the ventilation system. They’ve had guys sitting inside the control centers getting sick because of breathing that stuff in. Every so often we’re supposed to go down there and make sure there aren’t any holes in the ceiling…we’ve been banned from going down there to do checks.”

Bob Snelson, a chief steward for the AFGE local, says that it has taken over a year for an arbitration date to be set, due to the BOP’s lack of regional arbitration staff.

“We should be going into arbitration on that matter in January and I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’ll win this,” says Snelson. “However, it’s something we shouldn’t have to wait for.”

When asked if correctional staff where barred from going under the facility, Snelson declined to comment due to security reasons.

The BOP maintains that air is safe, saying in a statement that since the time of the incident “three separate agencies, including OSHA, have inspected the area and reported all air and soil samples are within normal levels.”

But Snelson contends that the statement is not exactly true, claiming that a private company and OSHA instructed the agency on how to clean up the spill, which included the removal of contaminated soil, an expensive procedure which has not been done.

“The problem with this type of contamination is that there’s no measurable degrees that they can say ‘Well you can stand 15 minutes of this or an hour of this or a week of this,” so we don’t know what kind of diseases we may have contracted,” Snelson says. “They’re going to throw a rubber mat over the soil like that’s going to make any difference.”

After the spill, a union arbitration decision rewarded maintenance employees with  full-face respirators to work below the facility where the incident occurred, but the upcoming hearing will look at the larger issue and determine if the BOP has properly contained the mess.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at