Polluted stream draws Congressional attention | VailDaily.com

Polluted stream draws Congressional attention

Christine Ina Casillas
Mark Udall 8-14 / MK Edit

Eagle County Congressman Mark Udall may seek a special appropriation of $20 million to clean up Black Gore Creek, a polluted Vail Pass stream.

Udall, the Boulder-based Democrat, toured Vail Pass from the summit to East Vail Thursday and surveyed the hundreds of tons of freeway traction sand that have leaked from Interstate 70, down mountainsides and choked off stretches of Black Gore Creek over the past decades. He was accompanied by, among others, town of Vail officials and representatives of the Eagle River Watershed Council, a local conservation group.

“It’s a federal highway, crossing federal lands that need federal solutions,” said Caroline Bradford, director of the Watershed Council. “We don’t think this environmental problem is a local problem, but a federal problem.”

The Watershed Council, based in Minturn, has been working with the Colorado Department of Transportation and other agencies on preventing any further pollution on Vail Pass. The project, which is already under way, is estimated to cost $20 million and the Watershed Council is seeking Udall’s influence in obtaining funds from the federal government.

“The structural solution takes $20 million. That price is big enough that the federal highway could probably provide it,” Udall said, referring to federal transportation funds.

Black Gore Creek follows I-70 down from the summit of Vail Pass and flows into Gore Creek in East Vail, which eventually meets the Eagle River and later downstream at Dotsero, the Colorado River.

The scope of the pollution problem is outside the routine maintenance done by the Department of Transportation. More than 300,000 tons of sand and salt mixture has been applied to the 10-mile stretch of interstate in the last 30 years in the Department of Transportaiton’s intense efforts to keep Vail Pass open during winter snowstorms. In many places below the interstate and on the creek’s banks, the sand is four- to six-feet deep, Bradford said.

The sand is plowed or erodes directly into Black Gore Creek, she said.

At the Black Lake reservoir, into which the creek flows, deltas are gradually filling with sand.

The Department of Transportation’s $20 million plan to prevent further pollution does not contain provisions for carrying away the existing piles of sand.

“We know what the sand-salt combination does to the environment,” Bradford said. “We don’t want it to cause more environmental damage.”

Tens of thousands of gallons of magnesium chloride also have been applied to the interstate in the last five years. Because of the heavy truck traffic on the highway, however, the traction sand will not be completely replaced by the chemical de-icers.

“The snowplows uncover the sand in the winter, move it and spread the pile out,” she said. “About 40 percent of it isn’t even used on the highway.”

The sand that flows into the creek smothers vegetation, kills tree roots, destorys bug habitat and fills the spawning beds of native fish, Bradford said.

“It also sounds like with the sand and salt mix that it’s a water quality concern,” said Doug Young, district policy director for the Udall’s Westminster office.

The water quality of the creek is indeed degraded by the traction sand, making it more expensive to provide clean drinking water downstream. The water quality in the creek led the state last year to list Black Gore Creek as an “impaired” stream.

“We’ve been doing a lot of begging to get (the project) done, and we tried not to wait for federal funds by working on it at the local level,” Bradford said.

At the local level, the Vail Town Council, the Department of Transportation and other agencies, including the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, have scraped together about $1.3 million to formulate the clean-up plan and start on the easier cleanup projects, she said.

“We will leave no stone or sand pile unturned,” Young said.

Christine Ina Casillas can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607 or at ccasillas@vaildaily.com.

Support Local Journalism