Semitractor-trailer’s oil spill Tuesday coincides with discussion about hazmat from CDOT and Summit County officials
Earlier this week, a semitractor-trailer carrying oil lost control and overturned after driving down the westbound Interstate 70 off-ramp at Exit 205, causing an emulsified oil spill and traffic delays on Tuesday, May 10.
Coincidentally, that same day, the Summit Board of County Commissioners and the Colorado Department of Transportation held a discussion during the commissioners’ work session meeting to discuss project updates. During the conversation, Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue brought up concerns regarding semitractor-trailers carring hazardous materials and their routes in and around Summit County and asked CDOT officials where the issue stands.
Currently, hazmat vehicles are required to use U.S. Highway 6 and take Loveland Pass when it is open. Drivers are only allowed to travel through the tunnels hourly when the pass is closed, a process that typically includes a 15-20 minute closure of the tunnel to allow the vehicles to make their way through without any other traffic.
The biggest concern in allowing hazmat trucks through the tunnel is the potential for a big fire, which, given the length of the tunnels, could mean serious difficulty for people trying to escape and for emergency workers trying to get to the blaze. In 2016, CDOT installed a $25 million fire suppression system in the tunnel, though the system isn’t equipped to handle a large-scale hazmat fire.
In 2019, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill into law that required CDOT to conduct a study assessing the feasibility of allowing the transportation of hazardous materials through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels, and under what conditions it would be allowed. The findings were presented last year, and though it didn’t offer any formal recommendations, it did offer up some considerations that stakeholders should consider for the future.
Since then, CDOT has created various subcommittees, which have held discussions to explore some of those considerations relating to safety, engineering, infrastructure and more. From there, CDOT Chief Engineer Stephen Harelson said in an interview that further research will be conducted to see what risk mitigation options are available.
“We have spent a lot of time thinking about it, trying to address it,” said Rob Beck, CDOT’s Region 3 program engineer, during the board’s meeting. “We did a gathering of the best and brightest to just talk out what are the things we can do, what is the mitigation’s that we can put in place, how can we control that sort of activity. ”
Harelson said that part of the focus of this group was to take into account factors that the study did not.
“We assembled this team to hopefully understand how other parts in the world do it, how other parts in the U.S. do it and try to come up with an objective way of measuring risk, but what those consultants can’t do is weigh the political challenges, the turf wars between Silverthorne and Keystone, for example,” Harelson said. “If Silverthorne wins, Keystone loses. If Keystone wins, Silverthorne loses.”
Both areas have concerns about not just hazmat vehicles traveling through their jurisdictions but about any large trucks that could pose a threat to the community if they got into an accident. Such was the case on Tuesday, where the incident caused a disruption big enough that Silverthorne town officials are planning to bring up concerns to CDOT in the near future. Hyland said the town is evaluating whether or not to hold the driver and company involved in the accident responsible too.
“If something like that is going to happen, there are consequences, and one of those is that we need to hold those companies responsible if they are going to disrupt an entire day of work and traffic in the community,” Hyland said.
Beck acknowledged the oil spill that happened earlier that morning at the board’s meeting and said that some kind of action needed to be taken.
“From a construction standpoint, I think we’re considering things we probably wouldn’t have considered in the past, like daytime work hours, doing lane restrictions that actually create moderate congestion coming down the hill so that trucks can’t just free ride down the hill,” Beck said.
Even still, Pogue said she believes there’s work that both CDOT and other groups could be doing to help remedy the situation.
“There’s a lot the trucking industry can do to improve things, and there is more that CDOT can do to help Summit County with these problems,” Pogue said in a follow-up interview.
One of the points she suggested was to present signage in both English and Spanish, and this was an idea Beck touched on too. He said officials at CDOT are starting to think about how signage is installed and that they would like to move away from language and toward graphics.
Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence also pointed to the trucking industry and asked how they could be a greater stakeholder. To that, Beck said he’s under the impression that the industry is doing what it can to provide solutions.
“They do a lot of messaging to their groups. But they have that problem as well that they’re not sitting in the cab with the driver, so they can’t issue the reprimand as they exit the tunnel too fast,” Beck said of the trucking industry.
For now, Harelson said CDOT is working on plans for a runaway ramp on the west side of the tunnel and that his organization will continue to assist in training drivers and enforcing violations if proper driving protocols are not followed.
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