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Toxic waste spilled at water plant

Janet Urquhart

An accidental spill of a small amount of toxic material at Aspen’s water plant has been cleaned up without incident, city officials revealed yesterday.

About two quarts of PCB-laced oil was spilled onto the ground at the water utility on July 26 while a worker was moving some equipment, according to Phil Overeynder, city utilities director.

The material posed no threat to the city’s water supply or to people, he said.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a carcinogen and “dangerous,” according to Lee Cassin, the city’s director of environmental health. But the spill, she said, was minor.

“It was a very, very small amount. It did not have any chance to contaminate any person or the water,” she said. “We were lucky, as far as where it was.”

Cassin said she intended to make the incident public sooner, but then got involved in the investigation of another environmental mishap that resulted in the death of more than 100 fish in the Roaring Fork River last weekend.

The water department dumped about 3,000 gallons of overchlorinated water into a storm drain last Friday. City workers had relied on a map that indicated the drain flowed into a pond, but it actually fed into a culvert that led to the river. The dumping apparently killed the fish, according to Cassin.

The fish kill was not related to the PCB spill, said Overeynder.

The oil, containing more than 500 parts per million of PCBs, spilled from a capacitor belonging to the city’s electric utility. A forklift operator tipped the capacitor over and the oil leaked onto the ground before it was immediately tipped back up.

“It took us about five days to find out it even contained PCBs,” said Overeynder. The manufacturer, General Electric, finally confirmed that the capacitor contained the material, he said.

“[The capacitor] was left over from the ’50s,” he said.

The city has removed two barrels’ worth of soil where the small spill occurred and has contracted with a licensed transporter to take the contaminated soil, the capacitor and two others like it to a facility in Kansas for disposal. It will cost the city about $2,000, Overeynder said.

“I don’t want anything that contains PCBs anywhere near the plant – just because of the public perception,” he said.

The city’s water utility is located on Doolittle Drive, between Castle and Maroon creeks.

The capacitors and about 50 electrical transformers were moved from a storage yard at what is now the site of the city’s Water Place housing project to the water utility.

Each of the transformers was tested years ago to ensure they were free of PCBs, according to Overeynder. The three capacitors apparently were not tested, he said. PCBs were commonly used in electrical capacitors and transformers until 1977.

The city notified the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state health authorities about the spill and were advised on how to clean it up, according to Cassin.

She does not expect the city to face a fine for the incident, since it was reported voluntarily and corrective action was taken.

Spills of a pound or more of PCBs must be reported to the EPA, but local officials had no way of knowing exactly how much of the material was spilled with the oil, she said.

After cleaning up the site, the city collected soil samples to make sure no residue remains. The samples will be tested and the results are expected next week, Cassin said.

The spill occurred about 50 feet from a discharge pond at the water plant, where sediments are collected. It was not near the city’s drinking water supply, Overeynder said.


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