Disaster waiting to happen
Gunnison County officials agree that Cochetopa Canyon on State Highway 114 is a disaster waiting to happen. The problem, according to the officials, is the narrow section through the canyon invites accidents. And they are afraid it’s only a matter of time before a truck carrying hazardous material will end up in Cochetopa Creek, with potentially catastrophic results.
On Thursday, December 20, at the behest of Gunnison County officials, Captain Allen Turner of the Colorado State Patrol gave Gunnison and Saguache County officials, Colorado Department of Transportation officials and members of the public a presentation on the issue of hazardous loads on State Highway 114. The highway turns south off Highway 50 toward Saguache eight miles east of Gunnison.
County officials had protested that the Colorado State Patrol was not enforcing the “no hazardous materials” rule on State Highway 114, concerning trucks carrying diesel, propane and gasoline, and the State Patrol agreed to meet with them about their concerns.
“We were a little nonplussed on going in the opposite direction when we thought we were going in the direction of greater restrictions and greater safety,” said Gunnison County Commission chairman Hap Channell, when he introduced the meeting.
The State Patrol generally restricts the transport of petroleum products on state highways to designated routes, and Highway 114 is not a designated route. However, county officials say that trucks are using Highway 114 for transport and normal restrictions are not being enforced.
Gunnison County officials argued that Highway 50 is designed for heavy truck traffic, with run-away truck ramps and shoulders, whereas Highway 114, with its blind corners and lack of shoulders, makes it unsuitable for hazardous loads.
In 1996, according to Gunnison emergency management director Scott Morrill, a truck wrecked in the canyon and its contents flowed into Cochetopa Creek—killing 16 miles worth of aquatic life. Eight-thousand gallons of high-concentrate nitrogen fertilizer killed thousands of fish and contaminated several area wells and irrigation ditches after the accident.
Morrill worried that a petroleum spill could be even more devastating.
“If we get it into that water source, it goes all the way down the basin,” he said.
In the last ten years, there have been at least eight additional truck accidents on Highway 114, according to Turner.
But Turner said there are several problems associated with restricting transport of petroleum products on Highway 114 and enforcing any restrictions. He said there is a state statute that does not allow the restriction of inter- and intra-state commerce under reasonable circumstances, and local deliveries must be accommodated.
“Nobody wants to define local, and nobody wants to define reasonable and unreasonable,” he said.
Turner said the restrictions are also driven by economic and political considerations. And he said the energy industry—which has an interest in efficient transport of its products—has considerable clout with the state legislature.
But Gunnison County attorney David Baumgarten said he failed to see the logic in using Highway 114 when it was fewer than 30 miles farther to use Highway 50 over Monarch Pass.
“If the thrust of this is we’re burdening interstate commerce because we’re making them go an extra 30 miles, I’m really not understanding that,” he said.
Another problem, according to Turner, is although Gunnison County had restricted transport of petroleum products on Highway 114, Saguache County—through which a portion of Highway 114 runs—had exempted petroleum products from restrictions.
“Saguache County would have to petition the Patrol to change that designation,” Turner said.
Moreover, Turner said, communication devices such as radios don’t function in the canyon, making it difficult for the State Patrol to monitor the area.
Baumgarten said a potential solution was to ask Saguache County to petition for a change in the exemption. State Patrol major Mike Hernandez said another potential solution was an educational program for truck drivers.
“Probably the most reasonable solution to the problem is to get the carriers to agree that they should take the long way around,” he said.
Colorado State Representative Kathleen Curry, who had joined the conversation midway, said initially it was too late in the legislative session to address issues such as vague definitions in the rules governing hazardous material hauling, jurisdictional conflicts and exemptions for petroleum products. However, after learning of the gravity of the situation, she promised to take immediate action.
“It is not acceptable to be running those tankers down that canyon,” she said.
Curry also disabused the audience of the notion that the energy industry has final say in legislation governing petroleum products management in Colorado. “The energy industry actually doesn’t call the shots in the legislature,” she said.
Turner said it would be easier to enforce the restrictions of hazardous materials on State Highway 114 if Saguache County lifted its petroleum exemption.
After Saguache County commissioner Linda Joseph agreed to take the information back to her board and the State Patrol agreed to work toward enforcement of transport restrictions, Channell thanked the participants and closed the meeting.