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Aspen’s caustic soda release leads to fines

Carolyn Sackariason
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – A botched release of caustic soda at Aspen’s water treatment plant last month has resulted in more than $100,000 in damages and fines.

The Aspen City Council last week approved an $86,808 appropriation from the water department savings account to pay for a clean-up at the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District.

On Nov. 27, 1,500 gallons of caustic soda was released to clean and scour sewer lines. The water treatment plant began the discharge at 10:15 a.m. at seven gallons a minute. Throughout the early part of the day, concentration levels rose at acceptable levels, according to Chuck Bailey, water treatment supervisor.



But by 2 p.m., the concentration levels jumped to unacceptable levels for reasons unknown, according to Bailey.

“The city immediately stopped the controlled release while levels at ACSD facilities continued to rise,” Bailey wrote in a memo to council. “In the aftermath of the release, ACSD released to the Roaring Fork River higher PH levels than what Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment considers acceptable treatment standards.”

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Also as a result of the high levels, the district experienced damage to its treatment facilities.

The state health department has fined the city $30,339 for “treatment violations.” That money has not yet been appropriated by the council.

The city and distrit plan to present a proposal to the state agency that would enhance the environment of the Roaring Fork River, according to Bailey.



The city previously decided to switch from chlorine gas, which can be dangerous, to a less harmful liquid chlorine bleach in its water treatment. As a result, it meant removing a chlorine scrubber that uses caustic soda to neutralize a chlorine gas release.

When the scrubber was removed to make room for liquid bleach storage, the remaining caustic soda was supposed to be disposed of. It could have been shipped off-site or sold to another facility, or it could slowly be released to the sanitary sewer for dilution over the more than 3 miles of pipe to the wastewater treatment plant.

The city had received permission for the discharge and had used the same method in 2003 without any damage to the treatment plant, according to Bailey.

Also known as sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and lye, the chemical has a caustic metallic base. It is used in many industries, mostly as a strong chemical base in the manufacturing of pulp and paper, textiles, drinking water, soaps and detergents, and as a drain cleaner.

Specific foods are processed with sodium hydroxide, including the Scandinavian delicacy known as lutefisk.

Bailey didn’t return phone calls Monday to explain the damages, or whether there was a threat to the population’s drinking water. However, there was no indication that the public was in danger, based on his memo to the council.

csack@aspentimes.com


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