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Spewing sludge 

State to make changes following dump of bacteria-laden goo

Nearly 72 hours passed after Colorado Springs Utilities contacted state health officials for help as more than 62,000 gallons of bacteria-laden sludge flowed into Sand and Fountain creeks two weeks ago.

A quicker response by the state probably wouldn't have changed how Utilities acted in response to the potential public health hazard. But the delay, which occurred during the three-day Fourth of July holiday weekend, has prompted changes to make state health officials more accessible, said Mark Pifher, director of the state's Water Quality Control Division.

"It was a breakdown in the process that we're going to correct," he said. "We're going to have to ensure that a person can be contacted."

Sometime around 1 a.m. on Saturday, July 3, sludge spewed for roughly eight hours from a 2-inch opening in a pipe located roughly 300 yards south of the bridge at Sand Creek, near Wahsatch Avenue and Las Vegas Street in Colorado Springs. Wastewater flowed into Sand Creek and then Fountain Creek, moving southward toward agricultural users and the Arkansas River at Pueblo.

It wasn't until Tuesday, following the three-day weekend, that the Water Quality Control Division, part of the state Health Department, returned queries to Utilities. Steve Berry, a spokesman for Utilities, said the municipal entity was waiting to consult the state before testing creek and river water for dangerous bacteria that could cause exposed humans to develop viral infections.

The spill, believed to be the result of human error, caused Utilities to issue immediate health advisories in the absence of input from health officials. The spill wasn't detected on Utilities water-pressure sensors, but instead by a Colorado Springs police officer around 7 a.m. on July 3.

By 9 a.m., workers labored to prevent the situation from growing worse, preventing as much as 5,000 gallons of sludge from entering Sand Creek by building a dam, Berry said. Workers used clean water to flush sludge downstream, and a rainstorm a day after the spill helped dilute the substance, Berry said.

Tests retuned July 9 indicated that the water was safe enough to lift the advisories that cautioned people to stay away from Sand and Fountain creeks and the Arkansas River in Pueblo.

Pifher, who praised Utilities for its quick response, also said tests prior to July 6 would probably have only told health experts what was already known -- that water was contaminated.

"Fortunately in this instance, I'm not sure anything different would have happened," Pifher said.

However, he said the Water Quality Control Division learned a valuable lesson -- that emergencies can come at any time and that a qualified expert from the state must be available to consult 24 hours a day, year-round.

Meantime, Utilities, which last contended with a 270,000-gallon sludge spill in September 2001, is working hard to prevent future accidents.

"There's no such thing as a 100 percent guarantee this won't happen again, but we are going to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent spills in the future," Berry said.

--Michael de Yoanna

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