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Snowmobiles fouled valley, study says

Jeremy Heiman

Snowmobiles contaminated snow in the Maroon Creek Valley last winter, according to a study by a Front Range college.

A study by the Colorado School of Mines has shown that snow in that valley was contaminated by chemical residue which almost certainly came from snowmobile exhaust.

Snow samples for the study were taken last March and analyzed at the Golden-based School of Mines. The results, just made public, show the presence of 20 hydrocarbon compounds in the snow. The concentrations found were not heavy, but a report on the project says the simple presence of the chemicals indicates “an unnatural level of pollution.” The groups involved believe a more extensive study is warranted.

The study was devised and completed under the supervision of John Emerick, associate professor of environmental science and engineering at the School of Mines.

Emerick and his graduate students took the snow samples in the study at a point one mile beyond the U.S. Forest Service gate house on Maroon Creek Road. Snow was taken from four collection sites, one in the center of the road, one 50 feet uphill from the road, one 25 feet downhill from the road and one 75 feet below the road.

“We certainly found hydrocarbons in concentrations and kinds you wouldn’t find in background tests,” Emerick said. The sampling site uphill from the road had the greatest concentrations, presumably because it was shaded by trees, Emerick said, and little melting had taken place.

The contaminant found in the greatest concentration is called 1-pentene; it was listed at 32.9 parts per million. Phenol compounds, benzene compounds and naphthalene were also found in concentrations of over 20 parts per million.

“That doesn’t sound like much,” Emerick said, “but that’s in a site 50 feet above the road.”

Some of these compounds are known to be toxic and carcinogenic, he said.

Dee Bellina, a conservation biologist working with the group, added that the state of California requires snowmobiles to carry warning labels directed at pregnant women.

In further studies planned for the coming winter, the group will take midwinter and late-winter samples to eliminate any possible inaccuracy caused by a melting snowpack. Samples will also be taken from control sites where there is no snowmobile traffic, to establish background levels of the hydrocarbon chemicals.

Karin Gustafson, an attorney for Public Counsel of the Rockies, said the Lenado area may be the site of an additional study in the coming winter.

“I think next year will be much more useful in terms of determining what the contamination problem is,” Emerick said, adding that a further goal is to generate a data base that could be useful to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in making changes in management.

Bellina said the group would like to encourage the Forest Service to re-evaluate the use of snowmobiles on some National Forest lands.

“It’s a question of numbers,” she said. “If you’ve got hundreds of snowmobiles, the impact is greater.” She said she’d like to see the Forest Service regulate snowmobile use to require the use of cleaner and quieter snowmobiles, possibly with four-cycle engines.

Most snowmobiles are powered by two-cycle engines, which are favored because of their rapid acceleration and light weight. They are largely unregulated and have no emission control devices.

Thirty percent or more of the fuel and oil mixture fed into snowmobile engines is expelled in the exhaust. This is because in two-cycle engines, the intake and exhaust processes are occurring more or less at the same time, and some of the fuel mixture simply goes out with the exhaust.

Public Counsel of the Rockies, an Aspen law firm, is raising funds for further studies, Gustafson said. The additional money will allow analysis of more samples and provide stipends to support graduate students.

The work was sponsored by the School of Mines, the National Park Service and Public Counsel of the Rockies. The National Park Service was involved because a group of park personnel is preparing to do a study of the impacts of snowmobiles in Rocky Mountain National Park, Emerick said.


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