The jagged San Juan Mountains that the Animas River slices through are staggeringly beautiful and a major draw for tourists. But for first-responders to a hazardous materials spill, they represent a major hurdle.
Durango Fire & Rescue Authority Hazardous Materials Team Leader Mark Quick recently maneuvered dark, twisting mountain roads to drive a hook-and-ladder truck through wildly whipping wind to a training exercise in Silverton. Quick heads the Durango fire district's Hazardous Materials Team, which must be prepared to respond to a gas-well mishap as readily as to a truck full of hazardous materials driving off a cliff.
“One of my worst nightmares is a gasoline or propane truck – or a truck loaded with barrels full of solvents that give off toxic fumes – will plunge off a cliff on the Million Dollar Highway that runs from Silverton to Ouray,” Quick said.
He has photos of the road after it was opened in the late 1800s and now.
“They look exactly the same except for the asphalt. The Discovery Channel named it one of the World's 10 Most Dangerous Highways,” he said.
But if his nightmare comes true, Quick and his staff and volunteer firefighters are trained to respond. They have pinpointed places where they could get to the Animas in case of a spill and have trained with their faces covered with gas masks, as they would be in the case of a real disaster.
Quick's team also had to find and map about 1,000 hydrants along the highway corridor.
The harsh economy forces Quick to be resourceful in getting needed equipment. One windfall came in the form of a boom barrier, donated by the owner of Colorado Environmental Services in Denver. The bright orange floating barrier can be placed around a spill to block it from contaminating the rest of the river. Then a skimmer can scoop up the spill or a hose can suck it from the surface.
“In some rivers, you could burn an oil spill off,” Quick said. “But the Animas runs too fast. If you lit a spill, it would be like shooting a fireball down the river.”
The trickiest situations often involve chemicals dumped near a river in unmarked cans or drums. To identify the chemical makeup of the material, Quick uses a spectrometer he obtained through a federal grant.
One dangerous spill simply required shovels. A tanker truck flipped near the Florida River and spilled its load of ammonium nitrate, a component in the highly explosive fertilizer mix Timothy McVeigh used to destroy the government building in Oklahoma City. Quick's crew dug a dirt retaining wall to keep it from seeping into Durango's water supply. The EPA retrieved the material and disposed of it.