Picking your road potion
EAGLE COUNTY Slipping and sliding down mountain roads aren’t the safest ways to drive. So all over the Vail Valley – and everywhere else it snows – crews plow, spray liquid deicers and put down sand and salt.With more traction on the streets, people are able to avoid accidents and save time, but at what cost?All the methods for keeping the roads dry come at a price, and the environment is the one paying up, agreed Eagle County town officials. The state and towns are picking their potions as they work to keep the streets open. “Some are vehemently opposed to liquid deicers, and some don’t like sand,” said Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “We’re trying to find a balance that has the least impact on the environment while still maintaining the safety of drivers.”While there are people who believe magnesium chloride corrodes cars and harms trees, among other things, there have been no definitive findings about its side effects. And while liquid deicers like ‘mag’ chloride may be more environmentally benign than salt or sand, the Vail Valley’s high altitude renders the deicers less effective, Stegman said.
And so, the transportation department, which claims responsibility for maintaining Interstate 70 and U.S. highways 6 and 24, turns to sand for a traction boost. The town of Minturn stays away from pure mag chloride, saying with houses so close to the streets, the deicer creates a bigger mess than it’s worth. Instead, Minturn buys sand-like cinders from the state, which are a mix of salt and small doses of mag chloride.Environmentalists aren’t griping about sand on the roads – it’s when the sand makes it off the road that it becomes a problem. Riding the melting snow into streams and rivers, the sand is squashing the life out of the fish and insects that live and reproduce in and around the river, said Bill Carlson, environmental health officer and planner for the town of Vail. “It’s a problem everywhere it snows,” added Caroline Bradford, director of the watchdog group Eagle River Watershed Council, “but especially steep grades and northern exposure, which makes Vail Pass the worst,”Just to the west Summit County puts up with less sand because their west facing section of I-70 accumulates less snow, Bradford said. In the Vail Valley, Bradford said sand is particularly harmful where the road and river run next to each other. Highway 24, just beyond Maloit Park and Minturn, is a worst case scenario where the road has no shoulder to act as a sand buffer.
“Trucks plow it directly into the river,” Bradford said. Stegman said a lack of funding and equipment prevent the transportation department cleaning up the sand it puts down. “We can’t sweep after every drop like we can in the (Denver) metro area,” she said. But the transportation department is taking a proactive approach to dealing with sand on Vail Pass, she said. Partnering with the town of Vail, the transportation department is helping to collect and transport sand, which is being used for create noise barriers in East Vail and as landfill cover in Wolcott.Vail has collected its own sand for years, though a small amount will inevitably make it into Gore Creek, Carlson said.
Avon also collects about 90 percent of the volcanic cinders it puts down for traction, said Bob Reed, director of Avon’s public works. Reed said Avon opted for volcanic cinders because they’re lighter and won’t break windshields. At the size of gravel, the cinders are also easier to collect and recycle. Bradford said ideally, all roads would have reservoirs to catch the sand and motor oil before it makes it into the streams. Vail’s parking garages have such devices. “But it’s very expensive,” Bradford said. “I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime.” Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14621, or email@example.com. Vail, Colorado