Use Less Salt: Metropolis, County Seek To Find Safer, Cheaper Solutions For Icy Roads
Despite persistently cold temperatures, the 2020-21 winter was warmer and less snowy than a normal winter in northern Michigan. This milder weather has helped the city of Traverse City and Grand Traverse County significantly reduce road salt use – good news for everything from community finances to the environment. As both the city and county work to more permanently minimize the use of road salt, critics suggest that salting up roads in northern Michigan has already had dire consequences for local bridges, roads, and waterways – and that finding a way to Completely eliminating salt consumption, possibly completely, is necessary in order to preserve the infrastructure and protect environmental health.
Salt is used on roads in winter as it lowers the freezing point of water, preventing ice from forming when temperatures drop below 32 degrees. It’s very effective at making roads safer for drivers – but it’s also very corrosive and can cause chipping and buildup on concrete and other surfaces.
In recent years, local photographer John Robert Williams has used a series of photos to document the destructive effects of salt, particularly on Traverse City bridges. Williams tells The Ticker that he was inspired to pursue the issue in part because of his father, who worked at Dow Chemical.
“His job was to sell Dow deicers to the Michigan State Road Commission,” Williams recalls. “And the whole reason Dow Chemical started was because people used salt to cure and preserve their meat before cooling. But like scientists, they find different uses for things. And so they perfected the whole business of making salt to reduce ice on roads. But as the engineers, the scientists, and the chemical engineers told my father – and he repeated this to me when I was a little kid – “If they find out what this stuff does, there’s hell to pay for.”
Williams says it’s easy to watch “the ravages of salt” in Traverse City, from corroded metal bridge railings to pothole roads to browned and dead pine trees along local roads. He points to the West Front Street Bridge (pictured) as a good snapshot of what salt can do for infrastructure over time.
“And when you get under the bridge, you can see the concrete peeling off under that arch,” he says. “It’s just amazing how much of this bridge is gone just because salt was poured on it.”
Salt flaking occurs when dissolved salt flows into porous building materials (such as concrete) or into existing crevices in surfaces, and then crystallizes as the surface dries and the water evaporates. As the salt expands, it stresses the material, causing flakes (or “flakes”) to separate from the surface.
Salt can also pose a risk to local rivers and lakes – something the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay actively monitors. According to Heather Smith, Grand Traverse Baykeeper at the Watershed Center, road salt spilled into local waters can “cause aquatic reproductive and growth problems, or even death.” She says water quality monitoring programs across the Midwest and Northeast United States have been studying the effects of road salt on freshwater systems. The results suggest increased chloride levels in waters near urban areas.
The good news, Smith told The Ticker, is that chloride levels in Grand Traverse Bay are generally low. The bad news is that the area also has several “urban streams” that can surge in terms of chloride. The Watershed Center is working with the Grand Traverse Freshwater Society and Trout Unlimited to monitor Kids Creek “for conductivity,” which Smith describes as “a pretty good substitute for total chloride in freshwater systems”. Preliminary data from these studies were not severe enough to “raise red flags, but it certainly indicated that there were peaks in conductivity during the winter months”.
“We need more data to confirm whether [elevated conductance] is a problem that affects aquatic life in our streams. We’re definitely watching this problem, ”says Smith.
Both the city and the county are taking steps to reduce salt consumption. According to Brad Kluczynski, manager of the Grand Traverse County Road Commission (GTCRC), GTCRC has tinkered with its road salt mixes to maximize its effectiveness in keeping salt where it should be and reduce overall salt consumption. Today, GTCRC trucks on snow-covered or icy roads contain more sand and more saline solution (a mixture of salt and water that helps make salt stick to the road) than they did 5 to 10 years ago. In the winter of 2020-21, GTCRC poured 7,392 tons of salt onto the 1,200-plus-mile road it maintains, from 12,229 tons in the 2019-20 period – and onto the tails of five straight winters in which the county’s salt use exceeded 10,000 tons.
The city of Traverse City started a new chapter last winter by adding Beet Heet to their road management arsenal. Beet sheet is a liquid solution of chlorides and sugars – including sugar beet molasses – that municipalities can use to pre-moisten road salt before it is deposited on icy roads. According to Frank Dituri, director of the city’s Ministry of Public Services, the product is less corrosive and more biodegradable than salt, works at lower temperatures, adheres better to the road and achieves the same safety effects in smaller quantities.
According to Dituri, Beet Heet was able to enable the city to reduce the salt application rate from more than 350 pounds per lane mile in the winter of 2019-20 to around 200 pounds per lane mile in the winter of 2020-21 – a 42 percent reduction. It also cut costs by 35 percent: the city spent an average of $ 14.92 per lane mile on salt application in 2019-20, compared to $ 9.69 per lane mile last winter.
Dituri’s goal is to stop the use of salt altogether. “The industry isn’t there yet,” he says, but he will be on the lookout for new products and future innovations. In the meantime, he confirms that the city will continue to use Beet Heet next winter.
Still, Williams believes it’s time for more drastic changes – especially as the city is investing in replacing several bridges and other infrastructure projects – from sidewalks to roundabouts – are gaining a foothold in the area.
“In the entire province of Quebec, the rule applies that from December 1, everyone must have snow tires on their cars or the car is confiscated,” he says. “Other places in the world get along well with snow on the streets. If you live in Traverse City in the winter, buy a hat, buy gloves, buy boots, and buy a shovel. If you want to drive your car, you should put snow tires on it. And if you don’t know how to drive on snow, then you shouldn’t be driving. As simple as that. “
PHOTO CREDIT: John Robert Williams