Installation of fire suppression system in the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels could spur discussion on hazmat routing
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — With $25 million in funding secured for a long-sought fire suppression system in the I-70 Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels, a debate over hazmat routing through Summit County could heat up again. In a first step, CDOT will start a process to update the 1980s-era rules for the tunnel, potentially opening the door to a petition process that could result in changes to the hazmat route.
Currently, gasoline tankers and nearly all other hazardous materials are routed via U.S. Highway 6 over windy Loveland Pass, where tankers frequently roll over and spill fuel. Most truckers would prefer to haul their flammable, toxic and explosive materials through the tunnel and down I-70 to save time and money, but local emergency responders aren’t sure if the change makes sense from a public safety standpoint.
“This is going to require some very careful evaluation,” said Summit County emergency services director Joel Cochran, acknowledging that there have already been some behind-the-scenes discussions among some stakeholders.
Any formal push to change the hazmat route would be likely to come from the trucking industry, specifically the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, Cochran said. The trucking organization did not respond to several requests for comment last week.
In general, changes to Colorado hazmat routes are usually initiated by communities along the routes — in some cases by communities who want the additional commerce, according to Jeff Berino, Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue assistant chief.
Once a petition is filed, transportation and safety officials would launch a public process by notifying the the communities that could be affected by the changes.
“We would make our various positions known during that public rule-making process,” Cochran said. More information is online at this Colorado State Patrol web page.
In the past, property owners in the Keystone area have advocated for a change in the route, not wanting the potentially dangerous loads rolling through their neighborhoods at the resort, but both Berino and Cochran said that changing the route would just transfer the potential risk from one neighborhood to another — and Dillon Valley has a dense permanent population base, as well as a busy elementary school.
Cochran outlined several factors that would need to considered from a public safety perspective.
“There would have to be some careful thought given to the number of spills compared to the number of loads … and careful consideration given to the fire suppression system,” he said, explaining that it’s not clear whether the system will be designed to extinguish or contain an explosion or chemical fire, or whether it’s intended to put out basic car fires.
In general, Cochran said the process of considering any changes should include comparative risk and vulnerability assessments, including the hazards associated with relatively low-speed crashes on Loveland Pass and the potential for high-speed wrecks along I-70.
The facts are, we don’t get that many hazmat accidents on Loveland Pass … maybe one a year up there, if that, maybe once every 18 months,” Berino said, adding that there is a higher frequency of truck accidents and incidents on I-70.
The potential speed at which trucks could be coming down from the tunnel carrying full loads of gasoline and other materials is a factor that needs to be considered, as is the fact that the Straight Creek watershed is the primary source of domestic water for the town of Dillon, he added.
There is also potential to make the Loveland route safer, perhaps with increased signage, and to proactively mitigate environmental impacts with the installation of permanent detention ponds in the accident-prone areas, Berino concluded.