Updated: Pollution discharged into Fraser River

On Sept. 29 the Sky-Hi News was tipped off about polluted water being discharged into the Fraser River. The pollution appears to be derived from annual maintenance work conducted by the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) within the Moffat Tunnel and it appears the UPRR is the entity discharging the water. On Monday morning Oct. 3 the hoses used to discharge the polluted water were still extended to the banks of the Fraser River though no polluted water appeared to be discharging at that time.

The UPRR has a permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) officially allowing the discharge of the water, but correspondence between Grand County officials and representatives from the CDPHE indicates the current level of pollutants being released are not allowed under the existing permit. Additional correspondence between Grand County officials and representatives from the CDPHE indicates the permit has been in existence since at least 2007.

In emails written to State officials Grand County has stated the organic compounds found in the discharge are toxic and some are carcinogenic. Emails written by Grand County Water Quality Specialist Katherine Morris to officials from the CDPHE state, “the Railroad has classically discharged these organics, without disclosure to the state, in high concentration pulses which escape routine sampling. The existing and proposed permits do not currently include any organics, let alone include limitations for these.”

Several local government entities, including the Town of Winter Park, are aware of the discharges and have conducted tests of the Fraser River looking for the presence of pollutants. Additionally Grand County is in ongoing talks with officials from the CDPHE seeking redress. Morris sent an email to CDPHE officials on Wednesday Sept. 28 stating, “I hope the CDPHE will have the opportunity to investigate this case further and address this specific source of contamination.”

Officials have also sent photographs to the CDPHE of the point of discharge that show dark, black, almost opaque water flowing from the discharge culvert into the Fraser. The photos appear to have been taken on Sept. 14. Notably, a letter sent on Sept. 19 by Morris to the State’s Clean Water Enforcement Unit, a division within the CDPHE, states, “The Railroad curtailed the polluted discharge by 5 p.m. on the same day that that we were notified of the pollution.”

Additional email correspondence between Morris State water officials states, “UPRR has stated that this discharge is associated with annual maintenance activities, and the Railroad has declined to report the discharge as a spill. However, nothing in the permit indicates that pollution of this level is permitted, and it would seem to be a violation of their permit.”

A water treatment plant, to treat the water discharged into the Fraser by the UPRR, is currently under construction, according to a letter sent to the CDPHE by Grand County in late June regarding a draft permit for the UPRR’s Moffat Tunnel West Portal. The letter states,

“To the best of Grand County’s knowledge, there is and has been no treatment of this discharge prior to release to the Fraser River.”

Early Tuesday morning, Oct. 4, representatives of the UPRR issued the following statement in response to requests for comment about the discharges.

“Union Pacific is preparing for a safety-critical construction project to be performed inside the Moffat Tunnel,” reads the statement sent by UPRR Director of Corporate Communications Calli Hite. “The project will begin the week of October 9 and is scheduled to last approximately four days. We are working closely with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to identify and install appropriate measures to prevent and/or minimize impacts from sediment.”

The statement from the UPRR appears to allude to a water treatment plant that is planned to be operational at the Moffat Tunnel’s West Portal in the spring of 2017 and is intended to treat the water discharged from the Moffat Tunnel by the UPRR.

Winter Park Town Manager Drew Nelson stated he was aware of the discharges and ongoing discussions between the County and State. “Grand County has done a great job of communicating with the Town on this matter, and we have collaborated on water testing related to the discharge you are referring to,” Nelson stated. “We also worked in collaboration with Grand County, Winter Park Water and Sanitation District, and other interested parties in pushing the CDPHE for the installation of the UPRR water treatment facility currently under construction near the Moffat Tunnel to treat water coming out of the tunnel a few years ago. Ultimately, the CDPHE and UPRR have an obligation to ensure that the Fraser River runs clean and pollutants are removed prior to discharge of any kind. Local dischargers (such as water and sanitation districts) are held to increasingly high standards by the State, and we believe that the same should be applied to UPRR and anything coming out of the Moffat Tunnel.”

Local conservation groups like the Colorado Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) are taking particular note of the incident. Trout Unlimited works closely with Grand County entities and cross-basin diverters such as Denver Water to maintain or restore portions of Grand County watersheds. Kirk Klancke is the President of the Grand County chapter of Trout Unlimited and was disappointed in the recent revelation.

“It saddens me that the people in this county put so much effort in the health of our rivers and outside corporations like Union Pacific can so carelessly and seemingly intentionally harm those efforts,” Klancke stated. “I am looking forward to seeing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment come to a permanent solution to this problem.”

The chapter’s Treasurer, Scott Linn, has also been watching the river closely since first hearing about the polluted discharges.

Linn recently walked portions of the Fraser River downstream from the discharge point and noted both significant levels of live trout and a single dead sculpin, which he hopes to take to officials for testing. At this time there is no way of knowing if the dead sculpin is a result of the discharges from the UPRR but the location of the dead fish, just a few hundreds yards downstream from the discharge point, and its timing, found the day local citizens informed TU about the discharges, are cause for concern.

The polluted water is being discharged from a pair of hoses located underneath a set of metal stairs that descend to the banks of the Fraser. The stairs are located directly north of the railroad bridge that crosses both Winter Park Drive and the Fraser River at the Moffat Tunnel’s West Portal. The stairs descend to the Fraser from an access point just off Winter Park Drive.

The Sky-Hi News reached out to officials from the Union Pacific Railroad for comment on this story but no official comment had been received as off press time.

This story will be updated.

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