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If you’ve ever driven behind a snow plow, you — or more likely, your windshield — are more than familiar with the fact that Colorado uses gravel and sand to deal with inclement weather.
On the mornings where school children are praying for snow days, the Colorado Department of Transportation, or CDOT, is working ceaselessly to ensure that that’s impossible. The snowplow drivers of this state work double-duty, scraping the snow off the road with plows and leaving a steady stream of gravel in their wakes. In addition, in severe cold with high risk of icing, the plows will spray liquid forms of salt compounds like magnesium chloride to break up the ice. And besides the fact that the leftover gravel may get kicked up into a windshield, it’s business as usual for the average person during those morning blizzards.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there — at least for the environment. Abrasives like sand and gravel used on winter roadways can eventually accumulate on roadsides and often clog storm drains and sewers. The additional runoff can certainly end up in lakes and streams, which can have a negative impact on wildlife.
But most importantly, the salt mixtures employed by the CDOT don’t simply evaporate into the air and contribute to global warming like most of the other negative externalities of societal functioning that we allow to permeate. Rather, the salt sprays, with heightened effectiveness from the chloride chemical component, dissolve into a harmful sludge that eventually finds its way not only into nature, but also into you and I.
The salt spray mixture used by the CDOT is similar to those embraced nationwide. According to the Wisconsin Transportation Bulletin, the use of chloride in a liquidized salt allows a 23.3 percent saltwater to chloride mixture to stay liquid at extremely low temperatures, up to negative 6 degrees. The effectiveness is thus monumental compared to simply using dry salt, as salt itself is five times less effective on ice at only 20 degrees than it is at 30 degrees.
Praise of the product aside, these salt sprays do far more harm than good when it comes to environmental impact. Because they stay soluble, both the chloride and other chemicals from these mixtures ends up in the ground. In the same Wisconsin Transportation Bulletin, it is noted that the levels of salt in Wisconsin’s ground and surface waters have risen since the ’60s, with the only likely culprit being the yearly six-month distribution of salt on roadways. Nearby soil and vegetation is negatively affected by the salt sprays, the strongest impacts occurring within 60 feet of treated roads. The bulletin goes on to state that in some cases, the chemical residue even contaminated wells.
So, if the salt sprays embraced nationwide are causing environmental harms, what alternatives can we possibly turn to considering the vast effectiveness of salt in de-icing roadways?
As of right now, not many. It seems that the two most organic and least harmful agents used for snow removal are largely compliments to salt, contributing to its effectiveness. Cheese brine — itself a salt mixture — and beet juice have both successfully been used to fight ice. Applied before the cold precipitation hits, both substances have been shown to lower the freezing point of ice on roadways, aiding salt in keeping ice from forming.
Regardless of the fact that both of these alternatives can slightly reduce the amount of salt and salt spray mixtures needed for road clearing, neither actually solves the overarching issue. Right now, there simply isn’t a stronger alternative to using salts. But with more awareness about the issue, this is something that could potentially come to change — human ingenuity is always sharpest in times of crisis. Hopefully, we can stop the salinization of our ground waters before this becomes a scenario of desperation.
Contact Assistant Opinion Section Editor Sam Schanfarber at email@example.com.