North Fork tainted by spill
SUMMIT COUNTY – For the second time in 11 days, one of the High Country’s pristine mountain streams was marred by a toxic spill, with potentially deadly consequences for fish. The latest spill occurred Friday morning at about 4 a.m., when an eastbound tractor-trailer rig spilled about 400 gallons of what is suspected to be car wash concentrate into the North Fork, about a mile uphill of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. The North Fork is a tributary of the Snake River, and its clean water helps dilute heavy metal pollution in the Snake.Despite a quick and massive response by local emergency crews, some of the liquid drained into the stream, turning it a bright and poisonous-looking rusty-orange color. The Blue River through Breckenridge turned a similar hue on April 17, when heavy metal-laden water poured out of an abandoned mine near Breckenridge.In both cases, officials said there was no apparent significant risk to human health.Lake Dillon Fire Rescue Chief Dave Parmley said the spill did not pose a threat any local drinking water supplies, and Denver Water spokeswoman Trina McGuire-Collier said that, while officials were monitoring the situation, there was no reason to believe Denver Water’s storage in Dillon Reservoir was in danger.Nevertheless, crews turned off the Roberts Tunnel diversion that carries water from the reservoir underneath the Continental Divide to Denver’s reservoirs in the South Platte drainage. McGuire-Collier said that extra step was taken as a precautionary measure.”The good news is that the spill is going into the North Fork downstream of both our snowmaking intake and our domestic water supply,” A-Basin general manager Alan Henceroth said Friday morning.
Henceroth said the road closure had an effect on A-Basin’s business, but the ski area opened at around 9 a.m. Loveland Pass was closed and expected to stay closed the whole day, according to Lake Dillon Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Jeff Berino.Colorado State Patrol Capt. Ron Prater said authorities are considering a variety of charges against the driver, William Bishop, 25, of Clifton, who was not seriously injured in the wreck. The truck, headed uphill, fell on its side on the outside of the first sharp hairpin curve above A-Basin, where crews piled berms of sand to prevent further contamination of the stream.Prater said that every time there’s a truck accident on the pass, there’s pressure to change the hazardous materials route. Truckers would rather drive their loads through the relatively straight Eisenhower Tunnel. But the CSP, with jurisdiction over hazmat cargo, would rather keep the route going over Loveland Pass, Prater said.Additional containment measures were taken at several other points downstream, in hopes of limiting the spread of the liquid, which is lighter than water and thus spreads across the surface, much like an oil slick.
Denver Water officials said they would also try to block the flow of the pollutants where the Snake River dumps into Dillon Reservoir. Berino said he was hopeful that the containment booms placed on the surface of the stream would be able to capture at least some of the spill, but turbulence in the stream would carry some of the spilled material past the booms.
By 10 a.m. Friday, the discoloration was visible as far downstream as Keystone, near the junction of Highway 6 and Montezuma Road.Berino said the cleanup would likely be a “high dollar” effort, considering the extent of wetlands involved. He said other smaller-scale cleanups in the same area have cost between $10,000 and $50,000.When crews first arrived on the scene, the bright orange liquid was visibly leaking from the truck, which carried most of the required placards to identify the cargo, according to Berino. About 40 personnel responded to the scene, said Steve Skuski, spokesman for Lake Dillon Fire Rescue. After determining that the liquid was not particularly toxic, crews immediately began cleanup efforts, he said.Below A-Basin, the North Fork sustains a healthy brook trout fishery in a series of beaver ponds. Populations of endangered boreal toads also live in some of those ponds. It wasn’t clear what the impacts to aquatic life could be.
A Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman said the liquid pollutant could immediately kill fish by destroying their gills.”It’s a waiting game at this point,” said Shannon Schwab, one of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s district managers for Summit County. Schwab said that EPA officials were on their way to the scene Friday to try to establish the toxicity of the liquid to aquatic life. She said she will examine the river and the beaver ponds in the coming days to look for dead fish, and encouraged anglers and hikers in the area to do the same. Dead fish can be reported to the Colorado Division of Wildlife at (970) 262-9316 or (970) 468-5848. Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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