CDOT installed a $25 million sprinkler system in the Eisenhower tunnel. So why do hazmat trucks still take Loveland Pass? |

CDOT installed a $25 million sprinkler system in the Eisenhower tunnel. So why do hazmat trucks still take Loveland Pass?

Scenes from inside the Eisenhower Tunnel's control room full of monitors of from video cameras Wednesday, Aug. 23, on Loveland Pass.
Hugh Carey / |

Every day, roughly 200 trucks hauling hazardous materials navigate the steep, hairpin turns on U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass.

It’s a treacherous route for lumbering semis, especially those laden with thousands of gallons of diesel or other toxic payload, and not all of them can manage.

Tanker trucks crash on Loveland Pass about three times a year, sometimes spilling hazardous materials right above a tributary that feeds into Dillon Reservoir, Denver’s main water source.

In August 2013, a tanker spilled roughly 6,000 gallons of diesel after crashing on a turn near the summit of the pass, sending a stream of gasoline several inches deep down the shoulder of the road and prompting a several-week cleanup.

“Constructing a system that would handle a fuel tanker would be very difficult. A system that would suppress a hazmat fire in a tunnel elsewhere in the world is either rare or nonexistent.”Stacia SellersCDOT

Denver Water determined the spill didn’t have an impact on water quality, but it wasn’t the first time the agency had to dispatch crews to Loveland Pass. In the past decade, it has responded to at least six hazmat spills.

“Fortunately, the majority of spills reported above Denver Water’s watershed tributaries have been immediately contained and didn’t directly flow into the river,” agency spokesman Travis Thompson said.

One of the worst happened 15 years ago, when a truck carrying diesel crashed near Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, threatening the nearby Snake River and prompting several months of extra monitoring by Denver Water.

Hazmat trucks are forced to take the twisting, two-lane highway because of a policy prohibiting them from travelling through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel on Interstate 70, primarily because of concerns that a fuel fire could catastrophically damage the tunnel.

When lawmakers and officials from the Colorado Department of Transportation were pushing to install a fire suppression system several years ago, they sometimes argued that it could alllow for hazmat to travel freely through the tunnel.

“A fire suppression system could allow for a policy change for hazmat trucks to free flow through the tunnels thus preventing regular traffic from being stopped and throughput would be increased,” a 2011 CDOT report reads. “If Hazardous materials were allowed through the tunnels, CDOT could shift resources from Loveland Pass to I-70 at the EJMT for cost effectiveness and efficiency.”

The fire suppression system was installed in 2016 at a cost of $25 million. But it’s unlikely that hazmat tankers will be able to skip the white-knuckle drive over Loveland Pass any time soon; the system, while carrying obvious safety benefits, is too small to handle a hazmat fire.

“The Fixed Fire Suppression System (FFSS) that was recently installed is designed to suppress much smaller fires than would be expected from a fuel tanker/hazmat vehicle and is necessary to protect the facility and the traveling public,” agency spokeswoman Stacia Sellers said in an email. “Constructing a system that would handle a fuel tanker would be very difficult. A system that would suppress a hazmat fire in a tunnel elsewhere in the world is either rare or nonexistent.”

The fire suppression system was the first of its kind in the country, a marvel of engineering carrying 30,000 gallons of water through nearly two miles of pipes — all at 11,000 feet of elevation. Automated heat sensors allow the system to precisely douse a fire within minutes.

It takes a fairly large fire to warrant activation. A small SUV fire in the tunnel on Jan. 3, for instance, closed the tunnel for about an hour but didn’t require the suppression system. There are typically two or three fires in the tunnel each year but none have ever caused a fatality, according to CDOT.

The system isn’t designed to extinguish fires but rather keep them cool enough to allow firefighters to get close. A gasoline fire, however, could easily reach strengths of 100 megawatts, far more than the 20 megawatts the tunnel was designed for, according to a report commissioned by CDOT in 2006 evaluating the hazmat route issue.

The study makes no mention of a possible suppression system and was completed a decade before it was installed. But it recommended that CDOT maintain its Loveland Pass hazmat route, citing the “catastrophic” loss of life that would result from an explosion in the tunnel at peak travel times.

“The greatest risk to infrastructure is the (tunnel) on the I-70 route,” the report reads. “The worst Hazmat incident would cause damages with a repair cost of 12.5% of the replacement value of the tunnel. It is highly unlikely that the tunnel structure would collapse; however, there would be severe damage to the tunnel ceiling, as well as the electrical and mechanical systems.”

The tunnel is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in the West, and an extended closure would be disastrous for the regional economy. Some 30,000 vehicles pass through it every day, a load that could not be simply shift to Loveland Pass.

A gasoline fire wouldn’t be the only danger if hazmat trucks flowed freely in the tunnel.

“Beyond petroleum products, there are a whole array of hazardous materials that would have to be considered as well,” Sellers wrote. “Some hazmat, calcium carbide for example, becomes explosive when it gets wet. Any change in the tunnel rules would have to weigh all these scenarios and minimize the risk to both the facility and other travelers.”

Any policy change would have to come through a complex review process within CDOT and also be approved by the Colorado State Patrol. Currently, hazmat only goes through the tunnel if Loveland Pass is closed. During those times, all other traffic is held at the tunnel entrance.

State Patrol spokesman Colin Remillard said that while sending hazmat trucks up Loveland Pass is far from ideal, it can keep truckers hauling dangerous cargo on their toes.

“The benefit with hazmat on Loveland Pass is that’s it’s a really tough road but people by nature slow down a lot on it,” he said. “I think trucks really crawl their way up there, and to me that’s a good thing.”

When a crashed tanker is leaking, CSP troopers and local hazmat teams initially contain it with sandbag-like materials while waiting for another truck to arrive and off-load the material.

While CDOT hasn’t ruled out a policy change, a revision would require extensive safety evaluations and public hearings. That means hazmat trucks will continue using the Loveland Pass route for years to come.

“It’s going to be quite a while before anything like that happens, if it does,” CDOT communications director Amy Ford said. “There’s a whole rules-making process associated with some of that and right now, it’s not something that’s necessarily moving forward. There’s quite a bit involved in making that kind of change.”

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