Report on de-icer is delayed
April 5, 2002
The release of a magnesium chloride report detailing its effects on environmental and human health has been delayed for several months as leaders from mountain communities and the state Department of Transportation slug out the details.
Officials from towns such as Aspen, Vail and Avon are concerned that the long-awaited report downplays evidence of direct threats to human health. The concerns include a test that revealed a radioactive isotope found in one sample of the widely used de-icer.
In March 1999, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tested a sample of magnesium chloride taken from a storage tank owned by the city of Aspen and found evidence of small amounts of radioactive isotope Cesium 137. Cesium 137 is an element that is introduced to the atmosphere from testing atomic weapons.
State health officials at the time said the amount of Cesium found was surprising, but not a cause for worry, according to Lee Cassin, director of Aspen’s Environmental Health Department. They reiterated that view again Thursday.
“I think that [finding] is indicative of the variety and levels of contaminants that are found in de-icers,” said Cassin, one of three valley residents who were on the report’s oversight committee. “At the least I want people who read the report to know.”
Officials from here and other mountain communities that make up the Colorado Association of Ski Towns (CAST) are concerned the report is written in a manner that downplays potential risks from cancer-causing heavy metals such as arsenic and cadmium. The elements have been found in samples of mag chloride since the mid-1990s.
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They also contest the report’s scientific rigor, noting that many of the statements in the executive summary are misleadingly vague in a way that favors the continued use of magnesium chloride.
CDOT director Tom Norton counters that the science in the report, which is due to be released in the coming weeks, is solid. In an interview with The Aspen Times yesterday, Norton said he drank a sample of magnesium chloride last month to demonstrate his confidence in the report and the safety of the de-icer.
“We have not found anything that would give us a reason for pause in using magnesium chloride,” he said.
Norton said the evidence his department has compiled over the last half-decade indicates magnesium chloride is better for the environment and the driving public. He noted that the number of winter accidents has decreased while air quality has improved in the six years that CDOT has been using large amounts of mag chloride on state roads.
The de-icer is applied to roads before, during and after snowstorms in a liquid form. It is easier to apply and generally more effective at preventing the icing of roads than its chemical cousin, sodium chloride.
Mag chloride has also been a cause of increasing complaints from individuals worried about their health and from sportsmen and environmentalists worried about rivers and forests that border roads where it is used.
The report, “Evaluation of Selected De-icers Based on a Review of Literature,” is more than two years in the making. It was requested by CAST and paid for by CDOT. The U.S. Geographical Survey and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment also participated.
CAST director Jacque Whitsitt, a Basalt Town Council member, said CAST asked for the study because its members felt a University of Colorado study on the effects of mag chloride on the aquatic environment raised more questions than it answered.
The first draft of the report was written by Dr. Marion Fischel from The SeaCrest Group, a consulting firm in Louisville, Ky. It was released in June 2001. That first copy received a number of comments and criticisms from the oversight committee, including Cassin, Whitsitt and Roaring Fork River Conservancy researcher Kristine Crandall.
“Like any reviewers, they have a point of view that they want incorporated in the report,” Fischel said. “I utilized a majority of their point, except where the evidence contradicted them or I could not corroborate their information.”
The final draft, released on Oct. 30, 2001, was still unsatisfactory to the CAST members, however.
“We looked at it and asked them to make more changes, and CDOT said they didn’t want to tinker with it,” said Bill Efting, town manager of Avon and a member of CAST’s executive committee.
“What we had envisioned with the report was something accessible and understandable for policy makers and the public at large,” said Crandall. “We’re disappointed with the results.”
CAST’s biggest concern is with the executive summary, which takes up the first 15 pages of the 159-page study, because it is likely to be the only section that is closely read by policy makers, the press and the public.
An example of their concern includes a statement in the executive summary that reads: “The chloride-based de-icers have the potential to increase the salinity of rivers, streams and lakes.” Cassin points out that numerous studies of chloride-based de-icers, including magnesium chloride, actually do increase salinity, which is a threat to the ecological health of bodies of water.
When officials from here and other member communities of the ski-town association asked for further amendments to the executive summary, Norton refused. He also declined to let CAST remove its name from the report. In a March 27 letter to Whitsitt, Norton said the report will be published as written, with CAST’s and CDOT’s participation at the front and a disclaimer stating that it does not necessarily represent their points of view.
“We basically sat down with them a year or so ago, let them direct the report and have most of the comment, and impact, at the end,” Norton told the Times.
CAST officials have let the issue go. “Did we get what we expected with the report?” Efting said. “Probably not. But it does keep the subject in the citizen’s view plane.”
Efting also said he sees nothing in the report that would likely convince him or the Avon Town Council to start using mag chloride to clear the town’s streets. “We haven’t used it for the last three years, and we don’t plan to start using it anytime soon,” he said.