CDOT releases study assessing risks of hazmat vehicles in Eisenhower Tunnel

The Colorado Department of Transportation has released a study analyzing the risks of allowing hazardous materials to be transported through the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

A study conducted by the Colorado Department of Transportation is providing new insights into the feasibility of allowing hazardous materials to be transported through the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels.

In April 2019, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill into law requiring CDOT to conduct a study to assess under what circumstances hazmat vehicles should be allowed inside the tunnels, weigh the potential benefits and risks of moving the vehicles off Loveland Pass and mitigate any risks identified.

“I think everybody brings their own viewpoints to the table, and the goal of this study was to try and look at the risks objectively and take some of the emotion out of it on both sides,” CDOT Chief Engineer Steve Harelson said. “Each of the interest groups have very convincing arguments as to the wisdom of their viewpoints. In the trucking industry, running trucks over Loveland Pass in the teeth of a winter storm is scary, and it’s risky for those drivers. There are some environmental risks that perhaps are undersold a little bit.

“On the other hand, running trucks through that tunnel, if one of those trucks had an incident, that tunnel would be out of commission for quite a while. That’s equally scary. You can’t really gauge how scary each of those is unless you can identify what the true risk is using the best statistical analysis available.”

The study was comprehensive. CDOT brought in an international team of expert risk analysts, tunnel specialists, and fire and life safety authorities to collect data on topics including routing, traffic and crashes, tunnel design and more. The group also used a pair of sophisticated modeling tools to help assess risk, including the Tunnel Risk Model, a simulation-based system that offers analysis using fire, toxic gas and propane scenarios; and the Dangerous Goods Quantitative Risk Assessment Model, which follows an event-tree approach to evaluate the probability of different scenarios and the expected consequences.

Numerous stakeholders also provided input on the study, including several local entities such as Summit County, Dillon, Silverthorne, Keystone, Summit Fire & EMS and others.

Currently, hazmat vehicles are required to use Loveland Pass when it is open and are allowed to travel through the tunnels at the top of each hour when the pass is closed, a process that typically includes a 15-20 minute closure to allow the vehicles to make their way through without any other traffic. According to the study, an average of more than eight hazmat vehicles make their way over Loveland Pass each hour in both directions, and about 2,429 hazmat vehicles travel through the tunnels each year when the pass is closed.

Because of the current rules, the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels have never had a hazmat incident in almost 50 years of operation. Conversely, between 2010 and 2020, there were 13 hazmat incidents on U.S. Highway 6 between mileposts 213 and 228 over Loveland Pass and 25 incidents on Interstate 70 between the west side of the tunnel and Silverthorne.

But it’s clear the potential impacts of such an event could be catastrophic. Harelson pointed to the 1999 Mont Blanc tunnel fire in France, a now legendary incident among industry experts in which a truck carrying flour and margarine ignited inside the tunnel. The resulting blaze killed 39 people and kept the tunnel closed for three years while officials reckoned with the tragedy and overhauled the tunnel’s safety features.

“It was probably around a 200 megawatt fire, which is similar to what we think a petroleum tank would cause if it was fully engulfed,” Harelson said.

CDOT already has infrastructure in place to deal with a major fire or hazmat incident inside the tunnels. The tunnels are equipped with a ventilation system composed of 28 600-horsepower fans designed to extract smoke from the tunnel and push it away from individuals stuck behind a fire. The tunnels also have a fire detection system and fixed fire-suppression system, which is split into 100-foot zones capable of dumping 500 gallons of water per minute. The tunnels also staff a four-person fire crew and feature escape routes where individuals caught inside the tunnel can exit to the other bore in the event of an emergency.

In the two tunnel fires since the installation of the fire-suppression system in 2016, there have been zero fatalities and combined closures of fewer than 10 hours.

Traveling over Loveland Pass comes with its own risks. The pass includes a number of tight switchbacks and steep grades, and risks on the road are frequently compounded by poor weather conditions and avalanche danger. There were a number of safety improvements to the roadway implemented following a similar study in 2006, including widening the shoulder pavement, adding guardrails where possible and installing cameras to monitor conditions.

“The other big point is there are problems aside from the tunnel,” Harelson said. “There are things to improve on Loveland Pass, on Straight Creek, or on the Clear Creek side. There are risks that maybe aren’t as catastrophic as a tunnel fire but are also important.”

In addition to human safety and infrastructure risks, the study also quantified regional economic and environmental risks in the event of a hazmat incident. According to the study, an eight-hour closure of the tunnels would result in a $7.5 million economic hit to residents, businesses, governments and the tourism and trucking industries. The losses grow considerably with longer closures of three days ($19.3 million) or five months ($852.4 million).

A hazmat spill on either roadway could have disastrous results environmentally. U.S. 6 runs adjacent to Dillon Reservoir and sections of the Snake River, and I-70 runs adjacent to Straight Creek, which eventually joins the Blue River — all of which help to supply water to local municipalities.

The study didn’t directly make any recommendations for when hazmat transports should be allowed through the tunnels, but it did list a number of items stakeholders should consider in the future — with further study based on data collected to quantify differences in risks to life, public infrastructure, environment and the economy — if the vehicles were shifted from Loveland Pass to the tunnels. Ultimately, the document will serve as a guide to allow officials to better understand risks when making decisions moving forward.

The group recommended further consideration for allowing empty hazmat vehicles to travel through the tunnel or to allow select vehicles to travel through during quiet hours between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Additional considerations touched on improvements to tunnel infrastructure, like adding foam concentrate to the existing fire-suppression system and prioritizing funding for ventilation upgrades; roadway infrastructure, like adding brake cooling and spill containment areas on U.S. 6 and I-70; and operations safety, like requiring new education efforts for trucking companies to use the tunnel and working with the industry on emerging safety technologies.

As decision-makers look to implement potential changes, the study recommended that a combination of options be carried out in conjunction with one another to create a “greater cumulative benefit and risk reduction.”

“There’s no way to eliminate any risk on any highway,” Harelson said. “All you can do is reduce it, mitigate it and drop it to acceptable levels. But there is no silver bullet to say, ‘If we do this, it’s safe.'”


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