County grapples with well trouble
PITKIN COUNTY When well water in West Buttermilk turned brown over the weekend, it raised more questions than answers about adjacent airport runway construction, further water contamination and damage to a deep aquifer.At a cost of $50,000 per day, Pitkin County commissioners ordered work stopped on part of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport runway last week when pumps from two nearby wells churned up water contaminated with silt.Vibrations from dump trucks carrying dirt from the runway area to build large earthen berms on the southern end of end of the airport – close to Aspen near Owl Creek Road – caused silt contamination in wells, representatives of the West Buttermilk Metro District said. But more than the silt contamination, nearby residents are also afraid vibrations from the trucks, which plan 3,000 more trips to build the berms, will cause irreparable damage to an aquifer deep underground.Residents also are concerned the dirt being moved from the runway area to build large earthen berms along Owl Creek Road might be contaminated with airport pollution, including de-icing chemicals and oil.With hefty daily losses looming, commissioners were pressed to come up with a solution to the problem Tuesday.And after a session behind closed doors in the morning and a heated afternoon forum with residents of West Buttermilk and their lawyers, commissioners decided to move the hauling roads away from the wells, but said they could not address residents’ concerns about possible dirt contamination or damage to the aquifer.Going to the wellGary Beach, director of the West Buttermilk Metro District, said water from both wells has been clean since the wells first went online in 2004 – even during high-use seasons.But when Beach’s staff started the pumps recently (the pumps had been off for a short period), operators noticed the water flowing into a holding tank was brown with silt.Well One broke down shortly after the work stoppage, but crews replaced the pump and the water turned clear; however, Well Two continues to pump brown water and is off-line.The West Buttermilk system, which usually pumps 75,000 gallons per day, is now operating at 45,000 gallons, and residents are concerned.”The more I learned, the worse it got,” said Jeff Yusem, a West Buttermilk resident and member of the Metro Board. Yusem was one of the first to contact commissioners over the weekend when the wells produced silt-choked water, and said he is worried the brown well water is just the tip of the iceberg.”I’m quite concerned about contaminants landing on top of that well field,” Yusem said.Commissioners were not willing to move dirt-hauling traffic off the airport site and onto Owl Creek Road as residents asked, but had a choice of two routes that took traffic away from the wells.One loop would have taken truck traffic far west of the wells near Owl Creek Road and would have required closure of the Owl Creek Trail, but commissioners chose the shorter route, which skirts west of Well One by 250 feet and runs some 116 feet from Well Two.Toxic soilDick Rubinoff, a West Buttermilk resident, said it doesn’t take a scientist to know that soil sitting along a busy airport runway might be contaminated with airport pollution like de-icing chemicals. And Rubinoff called it “irresponsible” to stack that untested dirt in the area that feeds the wells.”How do we know that that’s not contaminated soil?” Yusem asked commissioners.”To the best of our knowledge, it’s not contaminated,” Owsley said. “In no way would we put contaminated soil back in as fill.” Owsley said the board first heard about the possibility of contaminated dirt Tuesday morning.”That’s too big an issue to resolve right now. We will take it under advisement,” Owsley said. Commissioners agreed they needed to solve the problem and get the airport construction back on track as soon as possible.”I don’t know how many of you have lost $50,000 a day … it makes me extremely uncomfortable,” Owsley said.Diane Wallace, a West Buttermilk resident, asked what commissioners will do if the water in well one turns brown again.Owsley said the board can’t deal in hypotheticals and that they’d find the best solution.”It’s not a hypothetical; it’s already happened,” Wallace said.”Moving the haul route away from the wells is a good thing,” Beach said, but added that it would be best to avoid possible damage to the aquifer and asked commissioners to run trucks off the airport site on Owl Creek Road.With board support, Owsley promised to replace topsoil where excavators were planning to put the berms, and the board agreed to move the dirt-hauling road away from the wells.”You’re not going to test the water?” Yusem asked.”We’ll take it under advisement and have more discussion,” Owsley said.”I would’ve liked to see a different outcome,” Beach said after the meeting. “They made a political decision I think … I’ve got to talk it over with my board.””I’m not very happy,” Yusem said. He is upset project planners and builders did not bring in a water expert to study possible effects on the aquifer and said it was “unconscionable” builders did not test the soil they were moving from the runway to build the berms.”Very short-sited,” Rubinoff said of the decision that could cost the county a lot in the end if there is contamination or damage to the aquifer.”We’ll get going right away,” said David Ulane, assistant aviation director at the airport. With Tuesday’s direction from commissioners, workers will construct the new haul route, he said. In a project that costs $250,000 per day, $50,000 per day is a setback, but Ulane stressed the project is on track elsewhere.Michael Hoffman, an attorney for the residents, said he’ll bring the commissioner’s decision to a water expert and take action based on expert assessment.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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