SAN MIGUEL COUNTY – Officials from San Miguel County, including the Board of County Commissioners and Sheriff Bill Masters, are concerned about the integrity of various state and federal agencies’ response to hazardous materials spills on highways in the region, after it was assumed that the cleanup of an Oct. 1 semi-truck rollover accident in the Disappointment Valley had been safe and effective. In fact, Masters found that wasn’t the case nearly two weeks after the accident occurred.
On Oct. 1, Groendyke Transport Inc. truck, based out of Commerce City, Colo., rolled off Highway 141 near Mile Marker 24 in the Disappointment Valley, spilling what was initially reported to the Colorado Department of Transportation as 7,000 pounds of hot asphalt on the road and on the side of the road.
Two weeks later, Masters, who was out touring the West End on his motorcycle, stopped and noticed that cleanup of the spill had not been completed and that the spill was not solid asphalt but, rather, emulsified liquid asphalt. The following day, Masters returned to the scene and, with his phone, recorded a striking video of the scene. While a series of dykes had been set up to keep the liquid oil-like substance from spreading, the scene was still a mess, with pieces of the truck continuing to litter the highway and the lands adjacent to the highway.
The liquid had also spread away from the highway; Masters captured video of several birds caught in the liquid, struggling to survive.
Masters immediately sent the video to Colorado Department of Transportation to report that the agencies in charge of cleaning up the hazardous materials hadn’t completed their job. Masters said in an interview Monday that he later found out that the cleanup process may have stalled in regards to the various procedures that need to be taken with the Colorado State Patrol’s hazardous materials cleanup operation and the federal Bureau of Land Management.
“According to the trucking company, they were ready to go in with a cleanup crew but were told to stop until the proper permits were issued,” Masters said. “They had to apply for these proper permits and it was stuck in a bureaucratic process. The assumption was made by the various agencies that this oil tar substance had solidified but in fact it was in a liquid state and these birds thought it was water or something and got caught in it.
“I understand what went on, but still I have never seen anything like this. There was a lot of junk left there and all of it should have been cleaned up the day after the accident.”
Masters suggested that if this spill had occurred in a less remote area – for example, near the Valley Floor or near the San Miguel River – the cleanup would have taken place immediately. Still, Masters said he’s not into pointing fingers at anyone and that he will take a bigger role in making sure cleanups are completed in a timely manner.
“I hate it when people point fingers, so I am going to point it at myself,” Masters said. “The bottom line is, the buck stops with me. I am the sheriff and in the future we are not going to make assumptions that other agencies have checked it out. I am not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t checked it out and taken that video.”
The San Miguel County Commissioners are also taking action, and will meet with CDOT officials regarding the organization’s response to hazardous spills. Additionally, the commissioners are drafting a letter to the various state agencies involved, as well as to Gov. John Hickenlooper, expressing their concerns that this happened, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
“It wasn’t cleaned up for two weeks,” Commissioner Art Goodtimes said. “This is outrageous and I am really appalled. What I am more concerned with is, ‘What’s the future?’ We could be having hazardous, radioactive materials moving up and down those roads and if this is the cleanup response, I am really worried.”
As for the cleanup of the Highway 141 spill, Masters is happy with the response to his findings.
“It looks really good right now; the response came really fast,” Masters said. “They ended up putting tarps over the spill to keep the wildlife from getting stuck in it, and then by Friday, they were done. The tar is gone and the place is totally cleaned up.”