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True grit

Janet Urquhart

Aspenites are paying the price – or, rather, breathing it – for all those powder days.A spate of warm, dry weather that continued through most of last week cleared the streets of snow and ice, leaving only the sand that has been dumped on them for months.”We’ve been getting a lot of calls about how bad the dust is – we’ve had more calls than usual,” said Lee Cassin, director of the city’s Environmental Health Department.The Streets Department, meanwhile, has been running at least one street sweeper 24 hours a day, and crews have been at work clearing storm drains so they can spray water on the pavement to wash away the grit, said Jerry Nye, head of the department.”We put a lot more [sand] down this year because of all the snow we had,” Nye said. Prolonged cold snaps that kept the streets icy also forced his crews to use more sand than usual, he said.Aspen always sees its highest levels of particulate pollution, known officially as PM-10, in the spring when the snow melts and vehicles begin grinding up all the dirt on the streets, Cassin said.”Right now when cars drive by, you can see a lot of dust,” she said.This is also the time of year when Nye’s crews alternate between sweeping up the sand and putting sand down, as the weather alternates between spring-like and wintery.”We’re just putting it out and sweeping it up, and putting it out and sweeping it up again,” he said.Despite all the dust, the city hasn’t been anywhere close to violating the state standard for PM-10 – 150 millionths of a gram in a cubic meter of air. Aspen’s PM-10 readings haven’t exceeded that mark since 1991, Cassin said.So far this spring, Aspen’s highest reading, an average over a 24-hour period, was 51.5 on Feb. 15, she said.The city’s PM-10 monitor, atop the library, broke down Tuesday afternoon and wasn’t repaired until Thursday evening, so no data is available for Wednesday, March 1. Between 7 p.m. Thursday and noon Friday, readings were averaging 32.When levels reach the 50s, people definitely notice the dust in the air, according to Cassin.Last year’s PM-10 highs included a reading of 52 on Feb. 25 and again March 3, and a reading of 53 on Feb. 24.The highest readings occur when Aspen experiences warm, dry weather in combination with a lot of people in town, meaning a lot of traffic grinding up the dust, Cassin said.”If it snows on Presidents’ Day, then we’re off the hook.” Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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