Ireland: ‘Reticence’ shown by state officials about mag chloride debate
April 11, 2002
What was behind two senior members of the State Transportation Advisory Committee cutting off Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland when he tried to raise questions about the use of magnesium chloride?
One local resident was fairly sure that the advisory committee put a muzzle on Ireland to keep the truth from being told.
“They didn’t let Mick talk because they were afraid of what he was going to say,” said Judy Pearce, a longtime Aspen-area resident and business owner who is active in the effort to stop CDOT from using mag chloride.
Pearce drove to Denver last week specifically for the committee’s scheduled discussion of mag chloride.
The two advisory committee members who objected to discussion about the liquid deicer say they were simply guiding the committee away from an area in which it doesn’t belong.
“He should take the issue right to the Colorado Transportation Commission – they have a time set aside for public comment before every meeting,” said Glenn Vaad, the Weld County commissioner who raised the initial objections to the scheduled discussion of magnesium chloride.
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Vaad says the use of magnesium chloride is an operational matter that doesn’t belong before an advisory committee that is specifically charged with reviewing and making recommendations on regional planning initiatives.
The advisory committee is made up of county commissioners and other officials from 15 regions of the state. They make recommendations of budgetary and planning items to the gubernatorially appointed Colorado Transportation Commission, which is charged with overseeing the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Ireland himself isn’t quite sure what motivated Vaad and advisory committee chair Chuck Brown, an El Paso County commissioner, to squelch discussion before it even started.
He notes, however, that neither of his colleagues bothered to call him with their objections ahead of time. He also wonders why the issue of operations versus planning hasn’t been raised in the past, when the advisory committee took up issues like resurfacing and maintenance.
“It’s not like it’s difficult to get ahold of me, what with the phone numbers and e-mail address I make available to the public,” Ireland said.
He had been scheduled to address the topic of the CDOT’s increasing use of magnesium chloride as its primary method of clearing roads of ice and snow. He was hoping that the discussion would result in a recommendation for further studies on the deicer’s effects on human health. Ireland was also looking for a recommendation that local jurisdictions have at least some input as to how much magnesium chloride is applied in their areas.
Mag chloride is a form of salt that, unlike salt and sand, can be applied evenly in liquid form across the entire road surface.
It’s been proven to reduce air pollution, because as a liquid it can’t be ground up and kicked into the air the way rock salt and sand is. The liquid form also evens out the effects, essentially eliminating the large slick spots that occur with the old salt and sand method.
Its widespread, and some say indiscriminate, application has caused concern among environmentalists and people who are convinced mag chloride is making them sick. Mag chloride also covers cars, signs and everything else along the roadway with a sticky black residue, making headlights less effective and road signs, reflectors and center lines difficult, if not impossible, to see.
What Ireland ended up with was a brief confrontation with Vaad and Brown.
Vaad raised objections to the subject before Ireland got a single word out. He cited the state law from 1991 that created the transportation advisory committee, noting that its mission was solely planning and construction and didn’t include operations and maintenance.
“The law is heavy on the word advisory,” Vaad told The Aspen Times in an interview this week.
Brown backed Vaad up and only reluctantly granted Ireland time to talk, and then only after an inflamed Ireland pointed out that people had driven several hours to listen to the committee address the question of mag chloride.
On Tuesday, Brown pointed out that Ireland ended up talking about the subject in spite of the objections. “We allowed Mick to make a presentation about his concerns,” he said.
He added that a poll of the committee members at Friday’s meeting, taken as Ireland was arguing for his case to be heard, revealed little interest on the topic.
Only one other commissioner, Nancy Bogenhagen from Cheyenne Wells, near the Kansas border, said she, too, had heard complaints about mag chloride from her constituents.
The objections and subsequent argument over whether he should be allowed to talk clearly threw the Pitkin County commissioner off. When he finally got to the point – mag chloride – he had trouble articulating his concerns.
Midway through his shortened discussion, Brown interrupted Ireland, saying that it was interesting material that could be talked about for “two or three hours.”
Ireland snapped back, “I can finish what I have to say in two or three minutes, if you’ll let me.”
“It’s clear that there is a reticence about discussing the matter,” Ireland said yesterday. He noted that CDOT Director Tom Norton has shown indifference toward people’s concerns and has been unwilling to let the matter be debated in any real way at the top levels of CDOT.
Vaad said he doesn’t have any real opinions about magnesium chloride. But as an advisory committee member and former 31-year employee at CDOT, and its predecessor, the highway department, he says he is concerned about the integrity of the process.
Vaad, who is a regular member of the advisory committee, said he would have objected to the discussion about resurfacing and road maintenance if he had been present at the time it was discussed.
“When it was formed in 1991, the Highway Commission, which became the Transportation Commission, was looking suspiciously at this group, as if to infer that they resented having to follow its advice,” Vaad said. “The [advisory committee] has worked so far, and I want to keep it that way.”