Toxic Lockup: Documents Shed Light On Supermax Sewage Contamination

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is refusing to clean up sewage contamination at one of its most notorious prisons, documents show. New information has surfaced regarding worker allegations of environmental contamination at the Supermax prison in Florence that may be exposing inmates and correctional officers to health risks. Documentation obtained by Colorado Confidential from a source close to Supermax shows that the BOP is in fact refusing to properly clean a sewage spill that contaminated crawl-space tunnels underneath the correctional facility, even though a private contractor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have both recommended that the contaminated soil in the building’s tunnels be cleaned and removed. The bureau had claimed that the agency implemented all OSHA recommendations on the matter.

The documents also reveal that not only has the BOP balked at cleaning up the mess, but it also failed to provide employees with information about the contamination in a timely manner. It is unknown whether inmates in the facility are even aware of the environmental problem.

The federal United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, also known as Supermax, houses a variety of inmates who have been deemed dangerous by the federal government under maximum security conditions.

In October 2003, the crawl space beneath the prison was contaminated by a clogged water line. It is estimated that the leak went unnoticed for approximately three weeks, filling the space with fecal matter and other drainage. The contamination spread under the food services area, to Units B, C and D. At the time, a urine smell was reported coming from under Unit B, according to a report by private contractor IHI Environmental, which was hired by the BOP to assess the situation.

A BOP briefing obtained by Colorado Confidential shows that IHI Environmental, which specializes in hygiene and environmental remediation, inspected the crawlspace in December 2003 and released a report on Jan. 28, 2004, stating:

The bacterial samples were collected from the dirt floors in the crawlspace areas that were flooded during the October 2003 water intrusion. Any E. coli or Enterococcus group bacteria in the soil samples indicates the presence of fecal or sewage contamination. Both soil samples obtained from the Unit B crawl space and one sample form the Unit D crawl space indicated fecal or sewage contamination.


Bacterial sampling showed definite sewage contamination in three bacterial samples from the dirt floor in the crawlspaces under B Unit and D Unit. All of the dirt floors in the crawl spaces that were impacted by the October 2003 water intrusion should be assumed to be contaminated with sewage. Direct contact with the soil and other surfaces in these crawl spaces should be avoided until the areas can be remediated.

Environmental “remediation” refers to the process of removing the contaminated soil and cleaning it. IHI Environmental also noted in the briefing that “no exposure to bodily fluids or sewage is acceptable.”

An OSHA report that was also obtained by Colorado Confidential, published May 25, 2006, by regional director John Healty, shows that an inspection of the crawl space recommended that the BOP use remediation to clean up the contaminated soil found by IHI Environmental:

The best way to avoid the spread of any fecal contamination is to remove the fecal contamination…I would recommend the remediation of areas where [contamination] is present.

OSHA did not take action against the prison because the agency does “not have specific standards that apply to these hazards,” according to the OSHA inspection findings. However, OSHA did chastise the BOP in the report for denying information to employees regarding the soil contamination:

Information regarding the sampling that was conducted in the tunnels was not provided to employees in a timely manner. Employees were told to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process to obtain information regarding their potential exposure. Employers must provide exposure records to employees.

In response to the documents and inquiries as to why the BOP has not funded the clean up, a BOP representative released the following statement on Friday: “OSHA has completely tested and reviewed the area in question and found no violations. They made some recommendations which were optional for us to comply with and we did, in fact, comply with those recommendations.”

However, according to the BOP’s own documents, it appears that the bureau did not comply with all of OSHA’s recommendations.

On at least two occasions, Supermax warden Ron Wiley has asked that the BOP fund the remediation clean up, only to be denied, according to formal request papers obtained by Colorado Confidential.

In September 27, 2005, Wiley sent a first request for funds to pay for the cleanup, which was estimated to cost $418,000, according to the BOP request documents. Wiley tried again on June 16, 2006, only to have BOP regional director Michael K. Nelly deny his request (which had the same price tag) a second time.

Meanwhile correctional workers at the prison have alleged that the air in the facility, which is circulated through the crawl space tunnels, is making them sick, as was reported in Colorado Confidential’s Inside Supermax series:

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.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1302, a labor union that represents correctional officers at the Supermax, will be entering arbitration with the BOP in late February to decide whether the government must pay for the cleanup.

“It’s a clear-cut case,” says Charles Royal, an AFGE union representative, about the documents. Royal claims that the BOP has violated the union’s contract by failing to uphold an agreement to provide workers with a “safe industrial working environment.”

Read Colorado Confidential’s continuing coverage of staffing and security problems at Supermax.

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