City cuts back on use of `mag chlor’ |

City cuts back on use of `mag chlor’

John Colson

City staffers have unveiled a plan to experiment with reduced use of magnesium chloride use in the next few weeks, while tests determine what levels of toxins are contained in the controversial de-icing salt used here.

At the same time, city officials continue to explore the possibility of installing a snow-melt system beneath Main Street at some point in the near future.

The magnesium chloride experiment, laid out by Environmental Health Officer Lee Cassin and Streets Superintendent Jack Reid, calls for unspecified cutbacks in the use of the chemical and an increase in the amount of sand spread on city streets.

“Are we talking about getting rid of it [mag chloride] altogether?” asked Councilman Terry Paulson. “Or are we still going to use it?”

The answer, included in a memo from Cassin to the City Council, is that there is no answer yet.

The city started using magnesium chloride in 1994 as an alternative to sand and gravel. The sand, which was ground up by passing cars and kicked up into the air in a form of dangerous pollution called “PM-10,” got Aspen into trouble with the Colorado Clean Air Commission and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Mag chloride, which does not pose the same environmental hazards as its cousin, sodium chloride, was hailed by officials as the answer to Aspen’s air pollution woes.

But it has run into opposition from locals upset by the mess it creates on the streets, and recently the Colorado Department of Transportation reportedly found that it contains lethal toxins.

CDOT, however, on Monday issued a statement lamenting what it labeled “a great deal of confusion and misinformation floating around concerning … magnesium chloride.” The department plans to hold a press conference making public the results of a three-year study on the chemical compound, conducted by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Cassin and Reid explained that the ultimate determination of how much mag chloride to use, if any, will depend on whether it develops into a conflict between two basic city health and safety goals – keeping the streets safe and keeping the air clean.

Reid said he started cutting back on the use of mag chloride last week, and is beginning to use more sand on the streets.

According to the memo, the new streets maintenance program will also mean more plowing “both early in storms and after them.” Reid said this will involve a stepped-up schedule for his crews, and City Manager Amy Margerum cautioned the City Council that this might mean increased labor costs.

Cassin said the environmental health department will be monitoring the city’s “real-time” air pollution monitors, and asked for permission to cut down on the use of sand if a “spike” is detected in the air pollution levels.

In addition, she said, the department will come up with a plan to monitor the Roaring Fork River to determine if there is any change in the levels of magnesium and chloride in the river.

In the meantime, as part of a broader quest to find ways to keep the streets safe without endangering the environment, the city is looking into the idea of installing some kind of snow-melting technology beneath Main Street.

“We are looking into the snow-melt,” Reid told the council, but he stressed it would not be the kind of system used on “Snowmelt Road” in Snowmass Village. He said the costs of operating that system, which requires the town to heat water before sending it through buried pipes, is “astronomical.”

Efforts to reach Snowmass Village officials Monday afternoon, to learn the exact cost of operating the Snowmelt Road system, were unsuccessful.

Reid said he is looking into the possibility of installing a “geo-thermal” street-heating system. That would involve running water pipes deep enough below ground that they will be heated by the warmth of the earth, and then piping that heated water beneath Main Street.

Reid said he hopes to talk with someone familiar with the technology involved with such a system this month, but added, “at this point, we don’t know how real it is.”

He said that, after the cost of installing such a system, the only continuing expense would be to power the pump needed to recirculate the water or whatever liquid was coursing through the pipes.

He said the city could time the project to coincide with the planned reconstruction of Main Street in three or four years by CDOT crews.

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