Our View: Sweeping streets is more than cosmetic


We can empathize with downtown residents who are losing sleep over the noise made by the city of Steamboat Springs’ pre-dawn street-sweeping operations this winter. However, we believe City Council’s plans to exempt street sweeping from the city noise ordinance, as it has already for emergency vehicles and snow plows, is a necessary step.

At Issue

The noise made by city street sweepers in the wee hours.

Our View

Sweeping city streets is essential to keeping Steamboat on the healthy side of air pollution regs.

In fact, we are aware that city officials are obligated, under the terms of agreements with both the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, to sweep the streets once they have dried following snow events. That effort is made to reduce a kind of air pollution referred to as “PM-10.” The abbreviation refers to tiny particulates suspended in the air that measure 10-microns or less – roughly the diameter of a human hair.

Routt County Environmental Health Director Mike Zopf said Friday that the city renewed its commitment to both the state and federal agencies within the last five years and that agreement is recorded in the Federal Register. His office continues to collect filters from four different air samplers seven days a week and mails them to the CDPHE for testing.

“The city can’t ignore it, and the street sweeping has made a huge difference,” Zopf said. “I have to take my hat off to them because they have done a great job and it yields public health benefits, no doubt about it.”

And the most effective time of day to sweep the streets is when the fewest vehicles are present.

Steamboat was compelled to do something about its air pollution problem after it violated federal air quality standards on three occasions spread between 1989 and 1990. A pallor of wood smoke, which sometimes hung over the valley floor when a strong inversion layer existed, contributed to the problem. And so did the crushed scoria cinders that have long been used here to give traction to icy winter roads.

Zopf told Steamboat Today in 2006 that Steamboat’s air has not experienced a violation since 1996 and air quality is well within standards today, thanks to a commitment to street sweeping and an aggressive policy undertaken years ago to drastically reduce the number of wood-burning appliances in the city.

The street sweeping is necessitated in part by the contribution to PM-10 air pollution made by scoria, the readily available volcanic cinders that are spread on our streets to keep motorists safe during the long Steamboat winters.

Scoria is plentiful in South Routt and its sharp edges provide traction even in periods of daily snow. However, it breaks down fairly quickly under the weight of passing vehicles, and the cinders are pulverized into fine dust particles that fit under the PM-10 standard. The scoria dust tends to settle on the shoulder of the road where the effect of passing cars and trucks cause it to become airborne. And the virtual lid that a winter inversion clamps onto the valley floor can trap scoria dust and particles from wood smoke close to the ground.

Zopf said when the state and federal government studied Steamboat’s air pollution problem in the 1990s, they analyzed filter samples to find the chemical signature of the pollutants in our air.

Street sand — scoria — was the number-one cause, he said, with fireplaces and wood-burning stoves ranking second. However, restaurant grills, the exhaust from railroad locomotives and airplanes, and on certain days, the Hayden Power plant, were all turning up.

Wood smoke has been drastically reduced here by converting vacation condominiums to cleaner burning gas fireplaces and prohibiting wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in new homes.

Even with wood smoke less of a problem, Zopf said it’s important to keep up the street sweeping, because a period of strong temperature inversions could take Steamboat to the edge of a violation.

Unfortunately for the residents of Steamboat who are troubled by the noise, the wee hours, when fewer cars are parked on the street in downtown and traffic is minimal, represent the most effective time of day for the city to live up to its agreement with state and federal agencies.


Neil Camp 2 years, 2 months ago

After reading the story, we find another positive to add to our list of reasons to retire in Steamboat Springs. We recently spent a weekend in Taos, NM and were put off by the condition of streets, alleys and sidewalks after they had dried following a snowstorm. The historic plaza had up to an inch of sand and the entire town was a giant dust bowl. As I wrote in a couple of TripAdvisor reviews: "there was an obvious lack of civic pride in the appearance of the town while trying to come across as an art community and resort".

We commend Steamboat Springs and the State of Colorado for having the foresight to address such an issue!


Scott Wedel 2 years, 2 months ago

This controversy has little to do with street cleaning, but far more about urban design of having residences in the downtown core. What we are seeing is that some of our urban residents do not like the noise and other effects of living in also a commercial district.

I think it is being shown that the city consider downtown to first being a commercial district and residents need to accept that.


bill schurman 2 years, 2 months ago

Let's hope that the City Council takes this Editorial to heart and passes the ordinance on a permanent basis instead of weaseling out on the issue as they did last Tuesday.


mark hartless 2 years, 2 months ago

In other words: ... its a commandment from the Denver Archdiocese of The Church of the Holy Environment.

Many of those sleepless folks downtown are probably members of that church (now that's the really, really, really funny part!!).

The Holy Environment trumps your right to sleep... so shut up!


John Fielding 2 years, 2 months ago

Most of us downtown residents do accept the noise, and grow accustomed to it. The street sweeper used to bother me, it passes by less than 100 feet away, nothing to block the sound coming through my open window. But in reflection now I can't say it has awakened me in years. Same for the train. But when my dog barks at a bear or my kids close the bathroom door in the middle of the night I am awake immediately.

The council packet had what seemed like hundreds of pages of studies on sleep disturbances. If anyone read it all I wonder, was there research cited on learned behaviors of sleeping through familiar, non alarming sounds?


John Fielding 2 years, 2 months ago

How about a public / private partnership? Those who don't want the sweeper near their residence in the wee hours agree to hire a private contractor to do it at their convenience and expense. The amount the city saves by skipping those areas would be applied toward quality control inspections of the contractors work.


Scott Wedel 2 years, 2 months ago

Well, those that don't like the noise of a commercial will always be finding other issues.

Got an early morning delivery so that driver avoids traffic then there is a noisy truck idling.

Seems to me that those that care should buy better sound insulation. Maybe get the best sound absorbing blinds and put them on a timer that makes sure they are closed in the early morning.

Yeah, I saw the sleep studies in the meeting packet. The studies never did answer the question of why live in a commercial district if a light sleeper.


mark hartless 2 years, 2 months ago

So you can walk to everything, just like the advertising says. By doing so you can save the world, just like riding your bike in the snow...


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