In a snowstorm, it can be an unsettling site: a tractor-trailer pulling a massive tanker filled with hazardous materials up the switchbacks on Loveland Pass. Impatient ski traffic weaves around the vehicle while, on both sides of slick, two-lane U.S. 6, there are steep drop-offs that mostly lack guardrails.
That’s not to mention the crowded Arapahoe Basin ski area lodge, which hugs the pass’ western side in Summit County. Also along that section of the route, there’s a creek that drains into Dillon Reservoir, a critical piece of water infrastructure for the Front Range.
“It’s a sketchy road,” said Justin Creason, who hauls fuel for a living. “When you’re driving up that road, you’re kind of thinking, ‘How can they make this the hazmat route?’”
The answer to that question lies within the precious Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels on Interstate 70, which state officials aren’t willing to put at any kind of risk. Period. Still, the trucking and petroleum industries have been working for years to get tankers off the pass, fearful of the risky route that reaches an elevation of 11,991 feet.
A bill poised to pass the state legislature this year could finally get that ball rolling — or at least get the ball rolling again.
The debate is one that has surfaced before: A measure passed by state lawmakers in 2011 identified a potential solution to the problem. The result was a $25 million fire-suppression system for the tunnels with hopes that it would open the state’s economic lifeline up to hazardous-materials trucks.
But even the state-of-the-art system is not enough, and hazmat tractor-trailers are barred from regularly making their way through the tunnels at the Continental Divide. So, everyone involved is back at the drawing board. Again.
“I feel like after (all that money), we should probably be figuring out how to make sure we’re providing safety for the drivers and protecting that watershed,” state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, said as the legislation was being debated.
Why the suppression system isn’t enough
To get an idea of how inadequate the pricey fire-suppression system would be if a hazmat vehicle caught fire in one of the tunnels, consider this: The massive sprinkler system alone is not meant to put out a fire. It is designed to keep a 20-megawatt fire — about the amount of energy generated by a burning car — in check just long enough for firefighters to arrive.
And it has been really put to use only once — within the past month — when a passenger vehicle burst into flames.
A hazardous-materials fire, by comparison, has the potential of generating 200 megawatts of energy, 10 times what the current fire-suppression system can handle.
“The scale, and potentially the intensity of a hazmat fire, is what is the challenge,” says Amy Ford, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
That would spell disaster if the tunnel were packed with other motorists and the financial costs could be crippling. It would cost an estimated $1 million an hour to the state if they were closed because of a fire, according to CDOT.
Currently, all hazardous materials trucks are routed over Loveland Pass to avoid those dangers. In the worst winter-weather conditions — during which the route is frequently closed — the vehicles are allowed through the tunnels at specified times and with all other traffic halted.
What Senate Bill 32, making its way through the Capitol now, would do is convene a long list of stakeholders to figure out whether there is a way — once and for all — to safely allow the hazmat tractor-trailers through the tunnels. That probably necessitates an upgraded suppression system, if it’s even possible.
“Clearly, our preference would have been that they would have installed a system would have been robust enough,” said Grier Bailey, who leads the Colorado Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association representing wholesale fuel distributors and gas stations. “The discussion with this bill is supposed to definitively decide to set parameters and goalposts of what needs to be in place before (a change to the hazmat routing could happen).”
The organization helped steer funding to the fire-suppression system project finished in 2016. Bailey says the industry itself is willing to put up money to pay for the necessary improvements so that hazmat vehicles can travel through.
Bailey is resigned to the fact that it may never be possible for hazmat trucks to run through the tunnels with other traffic. “It is entirely possible that after the end of this study process, … the definitive and majority opinion could be that we maintain the current status quo,” he said.
But the industry feels there is technology and regulatory framework available to make such a future possible.
“I’m not saying by any stretch that it’s going to be easy,” Bailey said.
“The reason we are bringing this forward is not to save money”
“In terms of the trucking industry, this is one of the most hazardous routes in the entire country, particularly in winter,” said Greg Fulton, who leads the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which represents the trucking industry. “The margin of error for the driver on this is very small.”
He called navigation of the pass a “white-knuckle experience.”
In one particularly close call in October 2017, a fuel tanker struck a guardrail near Arapahoe Basin and came close to rolling over into the ski area’s main lodge.
At the same time, there are financial considerations for the trucking industry. Officials say the industry would save money and time by having drivers go through the tunnels instead of over the pass, but they say they’re committed to directing any savings to pay for the necessary improvements to the tunnels.
“The reason we are bringing this forward is not to save money,” Bailey said.
Senate Bill 32 has already passed the Senate with ease. It’s set to be heard in a House committee later this month. If the measure is ultimately signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis, the study on whether hazmat vehicles could go through the tunnels would have to be completed by Dec. 1, 2020.
“We have a lot of things to balance,” said Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican who is a lead sponsor of the measure.