Supermax Sewage Spat Postponed Until February

An arbitration hearing regarding contaminated air at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., has been postponed until late February.

The labor union representing correctional officers at the Supermax facility was expected to enter arbitration with the federal Bureau of Prisons this month regarding a sewage spill that happened underneath the prison in 2003. Correctional workers claim that the BOP has failed to properly clean up the mess and that the lingering contamination is making staffers ill.According to union officials, an arbitration hearing will take place on Feb. 25 and 26, where an impartial referee will decide if the BOP needs to take extra precautions to clean up the sewage spill–particularly soil that was contaminated during the incident.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the union which represents the officers, has won a previous arbitration decision regarding the matter, which rewarded maintenance employees with full-face respirators to work below the facility.

AFGE officials say the date was moved due to the fact that the union asked for two days to arbitrate.

In October, Colorado Confidential reported on the pending spat over the sewage issue:

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 were 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.”

The BOP did not return a request for comment regarding the date change or the pending arbitration.

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