Erin from Morrison writes, “What's driving you crazy? Why hasn't anybody cleared up the huge potato mess on 285 near Simms? That crash happened a long time ago.”
A long time ago indeed, Erin. The big mess you are talking about all started on the night of Aug. 6. A truck driver, hauling thousands of loose potatoes, was heading northbound on Highway 285 and just east of C-470, his brakes on the trailer caught on fire. According to the West Metro Fire Department, the driver saw smoke coming from the trailer, pulled over right before the Simms exit and called the fire department just as the truck burst into flames. The driver was able to get out of the cab without being hurt.
It took a few minutes for the firefighters to get there and what they found was a fully engaged truck fire with a ruptured fuel tank. West Metro HazMat team said they were able to contain the spill and soak up most of the diesel fuel.
According to Lakewood police, the fire fight was going OK until the trailer collapsed, spilling potatoes all over the highway. The truck, along with all the loose potatoes, was a total loss.
Officers on scene said at the time that because it was so late, well after midnight, and they were tired from battling the fire, they pushed the potatoes, some burned some not, to the side of the road. The next morning, they renamed the pile Potato Hill.
The responding tow truck driver helped to clear the wreck. They towed away the remnants of the cab and trailer and pushed the rest of the wreck, including the spilled potatoes, off the highway, leaving a very long pile of spuds and other debris on the right shoulder of northbound highway 285 and in the grass.
In Colorado, as well as in most other states, after a vehicle crash, the responding tow driver is responsible for the clean-up and removal of all of the vehicles including the debris. Since police directed the on-scene tow drivers to clear the mess to the side of the road, a decision was made to leave Potato Hill in place until a later date.
The later date came over the weekend. After repeated calls to Ace Towing out of Lakewood, I was told by a manager that they were waiting for the trucking company, TRX Express out of Bolingbrook, Illinois, to settle the matter with their insurance company before starting their part of the cleanup. Now that the matter appears to be settled, the manager at Ace tells told me they used a front loader to scoop up the rotting, smelly remnants of Potato Hill into a truck and hauled it away to the dump.
Meanwhile, as we waited for some action, thousands of loose potatoes rotted for weeks on the side of Highway 285. Most still have a potato shape weeks later, but they were becoming shriveled, giving off an especially bad smell that I experienced firsthand.
The truck fire and fuel spill left a fair amount of hazardous material on the road and in Potato Hill. In Colorado, when there is a significant spill of hazardous materials, first responders use a set of disposal guidelines and documented practices to help guide them through the initial stages of the process. Later on, it guides them to hire pre-designated private response contractors to handle the spill.
Now that Potato Hill has been removed, a crew from Custom Environmental Services in Arvada is supposed to take care of the hazardous materials that are left over. A manager at CES tells me they aren’t sure when their part of the cleanup will start as they too are waiting on some financial and legal issues to be resolved by TRX Express. The manager wouldn’t speculate when that might happen. He did tell me once they are ready to work, their part of the cleanup should be a straightforward process to remove all the contaminated soil and test the ground for any other contaminants.
When I contacted Colorado’s DOT they told me the towing company and environmental company are in charge of the cleanup, not them. I pressed them on the issue asking how long they would wait in a situation like this for the matter to be resolved before they stepped in and scoop up the spuds. They told me in general, if the responsible party fails to act, then CDOT clears the debris and sends the bill to the responsible party. Cost would include time and materials required to remove the debris and conduct any required remediation. There is no definite timeline on when the clean-up occurs, but there is a process CDOT works through to get the debris cleaned up and the costs paid for.
The bottom line here, Erin, is the most rotting part of Potato Hill is gone, but when the rest of it will be cleared is still anyone’s guess.
Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 25 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes , Stitcher , Google Play or Podbean.