Aspen officials zero in on source of foul odors |

Aspen officials zero in on source of foul odors

An Aspen official thinks sewage smells from underground originate at the Residences at the Little Nell, above.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Contrary to previous reports, foul odors emanating from underground that have plagued some areas of Aspen’s downtown core in recent months are probably not the result of decaying organic matter, a city official said Thursday.

Instead, they are likely connected to sewage discharge from the Residences at The Little Nell that contaminated the city’s stormwater system with E. coli and fecal coliform, said April Long, Aspen’s stormwater manager.

“The system is connected,” Long said. “I think it’s related to (the Residences).”

The city issued a cease and desist order to the Residences at The Little Nell on Wednesday forbidding building officials from releasing any discharge into the city’s stormwater system until the source of the pollution is identified and fixed. The owners of the building shut down the sump pump that was draining into the storm sewer, according to a city statement issued Wednesday.

Residences officials have not released any such discharge since April 5, when their own water sample tests prompted officials to redirect any discharge through the main sewer line, according to an email Thursday from May Selby, spokeswoman for The Little Nell. The odor was first detected by the Residences’ chief engineer March 1, who immediately notified city officials, Selby said in the email.

Long said she’s not sure how long the contamination was being pumped into the stormwater system.

“We’re going to do some more investigating,” she said.

However, water tests taken Wednesday at Rio Grande Park and from the Roaring Fork River below the Jenny Adair Wetlands near the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies showed levels of E. coli that were below state standards, Long said. That means any health risks to humans or animals have dissipated, she said.

A March 10 article in The Aspen Times about the odors illuminated two areas in the downtown core where the stench seemed particularly strong. One was near the fountain popular with children in the summer at Mill Street and Hyman Avenue, while the other was along the Durant Street pedestrian walkway at the base of Aspen Mountain between Galena and Hunter streets.

An employee of a Mill Street-area restaurant said the sewage odors began in January, while employees of other businesses in the area simply said the area stunk frequently this winter.

Rob Small, an employee of The Ski Shop on Durant Street, said in March that he covered up stormwater system grates to the west of his shop because he and his fellow employees couldn’t take the stench blowing into their shop anymore. The lone grate he didn’t cover east of his shop emitted a disgusting, sewagelike smell at that time in early March.

Small complained in February to the city’s Environmental Health Department, which referred him to the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District. Nothing came of the complaints, he said.

In response to a call from the Times in March, an official with the sanitation district investigated the odors at Mill and Hyman and said they were likely the result of organic matter that washed into the storm system, decayed and gave off the offending odor. Long also said at the time the odors were probably the result of decaying organic matter.

Long confirmed Thursday that someone from the Residences at The Little Nell did inform the city of the smell March 1. The city also received another complaint at the time from an art gallery near Mill and Hyman, she said, which prompted the city to clean the stormwater system in the area, she said.

However, the odors returned, Long said. So the city conducted its first round of tests on storm-system water taken from the Mill Street area and from an area near Dean and Galena streets, she said.

Those tests came back April 4 positive for fecal coliform and with high levels of ammonia, Long said.

“That’s when we started thinking it could be a sanitary issue,” she said, because fecal coliform only lives in the guts of humans and animals.

The Dean Street readings were higher than the Mill Street readings, which helped officials track the source, Long said.

The city then took more samples April 5, which came back with levels of coliform and E. coli higher than state standards, she said.

The sump pump at the Residences at The Little Nell discharges groundwater collected from around the building’s foundation and discharges it into the stormwater system when it reaches a certain level, Long said.

Small said he met with an engineer from the Residences in December before Christmas about the smell. That person told him building employees were putting something into the sump pump to try and control the smell, he said.

Small said he also brought the engineer over to his ski shop twice so the man could smell the odor. Small said he could tell the odor had something to do with the building’s sump pump because he could hear it turn on, could hear the water begin to flow and then could smell the stench.

“It was bad all winter,” he said. “I’m more frustrated with the Nell. They knew about it from back in December.”

No one at the Residences is aware of the December conversation with Small, Selby said Thursday.

The source of the contamination is not yet known.

“We will be running tests on our sewage system to see if (the Residences sump pump) was the source or if it originated from other sewage lines outside of the property,” Selby said Thursday in the statement.

For now, the city is concentrating on helping the Residences find the source of the contamination, Long said. Some sort of punishment could be forthcoming, she said.

Long said a food-borne-disease manager with the state of Colorado said the health risk to the community from the discharge was not significant because the sewage must be ingested to cause problems. Because it was winter, few people were around the Rio Grande Park wetlands to have the opportunity to come into contact with the contamination, she said.

The manager said the public faced no health risks from the odors alone, Long said.

Also, Long said she is hoping a septic-system cleaning company can clean out the Mill Street pipe system today so the city can be sure all remnants of the pollution are removed.

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