By Mindy Sink
New York Times
DENVER Interstate 70 in the Rockies can be at its busiest
in winter, when hordes of skiers from around the world join
the daily tide of commuters and long-haul truckers climbing
the Continental Divide. All of them expect the road to be
free of ice. And that is creating an environmental problem
that lasts far beyond winter.
The problem lies in the tons of sand, salt and liquid chemicals
that highway workers use each winter. In particular, sand
laced with chemicals and salt has accumulated on roadsides
for decades, taking a growing toll on the rivers and vegetation
in this fragile environment.
The Colorado Department of Transportation estimates that
$35 million will be needed to clean up the sand and install
a proper drainage system.
"This is not a safety-versus-the-environment issue,"
Representative Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, wrote to
Robert Roberts, regional director of the federal Environmental
Protection Agency. "We ought to have both. We need to
make sure that these water sources are being protected while
at the same time make sure that Interstate 70 is safe to motorists
during the treacherous winter months."
Mr. Udall also wants to know whether the use of sand complies
with the Clean Water Act. It is widely believed to be affecting
water quality, choking streams and vegetation. Studies are
also under way to determine whether magnesium chloride sprayed
on slippery roads is causing power failures and vehicle corrosion.
Colorado is not the only state with such problems. Sens.
John W. Warner of Virginia and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island,
both Republicans, have added a provision to the transportation
bill now before Congress to set aside federal funds to help
the states with road cleanups.
A five-year study in Canada has found that road salt, a toxic
substance, can damage waterways, soil, vegetation, fish, birds
and some wildlife without harming people.
In Colorado, a regional director of the Transportation Department,
Ed Fink, said any technique to remove ice and snow would affect
the environment. "There are a lot of tradeoffs and no
pat answers," he said.
He is working with the National Cooperative Highway Research
Program, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, on a
booklet that will outline the pros and cons of different methods
in diverse climates.
A spectrum of interests, including the trucking and tourism
industries and water utilities, are concerned about solutions.
Some environmentalists are examining the effects on ecosystems
and wildlife, as the Transportation Department tries to balance
among the interests and lower accident rates.
"Everybody is split," said Reeves Brown, president
of Club 20, a coalition of 22 counties along the Western Slope
of the Rockies. The group met in December and is to meet again
in the spring, to discuss the effects of magnesium chloride
Studies show that accident rates have recently declined because
of improved snow and ice removal.
"The pressure is tremendous," said a spokeswoman
for the Transportation Department, Stacey Stegman. "When
we have a storm with any amount of ice that our crews aren't
at their best with, we are bombarded with complaints. There
is an expectation that people in Colorado will be able to
drive on wet roads in the worst of conditions."
Caroline Bradford, executive director of the Eagle River
Watershed Council in Minturn, Colo., said: "The Colorado
Department of Transportation's mission is to provide a safe
roadway, and our mission is to advocate for the health of
the watershed. Oddly enough, those two things appear to be
Ms. Bradford said she understood the department's need to
keep the roads safe for driving. "But we want them to
do it in such a way that they don't degrade the habitat,"
she added. "It's possible. It just costs money."
In the last two years, Ms. Bradford said, 48 sediment basins
have been built, at a total cost of $1.5 million, to catch
sand along Interstate 70 as it sweeps down the mountainsides.
But "preventing traction sand" from reaching waterways
is difficult, said Mr. Roberts, of the E.P.A., who added,
"Restoration will be even more technically problematic
In another letter to Mr. Udall, the executive director of
the Colorado Transportation Department, Thomas E. Norton,
said the $35 million would be needed to carry out his agency's
sediment control plan. But he acknowledged that "the
program was largely unfunded."
The plan would involve overhauling the highway drainage along
Straight Creek and Black Gore Creek, two 10-mile-long segments
75 miles west of Denver.
In the Denver metropolitan region, sand has is rarely been
used since officials learned in the late 1980's that the particles
contributed significantly to the infamous "brown cloud"
that hovers over the city.
The alternative has been magnesium chloride or similar liquids
applied in anticipation of freezing conditions. Now, some
authorities fear, the components that make the roadway sticky
are gumming up electric lines and causing power failures.
"It should be said we do support the use of magnesium
chloride and the larger issue that addresses with safer roads
and clear skies," said Steve Roalstad, a spokesman for
the local power company, Xcel Energy. "That said, we
do know that magnesium chloride is a contributing factor to
The utility says the magnesium chloride and sand mix with
the snow and form a vapor that ends up on poles, substations
and other sensitive electrical equipment, where it can result
in fires and short-circuits.
The department has tested the effects of magnesium chloride
and says it found the salt to be cost- effective and friendly
to the environment.
"The problem we face is that there isn't a perfect product
out there for de-icing the roads," Ms. Stegman said.
"There is a negative tradeoff to any product on the market.
What we do is try to find something where the benefits outweigh
the negative impact."