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Deicers: Environmentally Friendly or Poison?

When it comes to ice and snow removal, plowing, shoveling and salt are the top methods used.  But when snow removal is paired with its environmental damage, the environment is often left far behind.  Last year by February 9th, ODOT had used 584,105 tons of salt for roadway deicing.  At the same point this year, they had only used 265, 979.  What does this mean?

But first, is salt actually bad for the environment?  A study by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services says it is.  The 2007 study shows that the NaCl, commonly known as road salt, effects more than just the immediate environment of a roadway; it effects the water systems, wildlife health, aquatic health and vegetation.  It also wears at infrastructure.

The alternatives, however, are expensive and some are down right dangerous.  “We currently have several different materials at our disposal. For example, we use BEET HEET which is made from beet juice. We also use calcium chloride. Road salt is only effective at certain temperatures, so sometimes we have to use alternatives,” ODOT Press Secretary Matt Bruining said.

There are conflicting reports on whether or not salt is overall a poor deicer choice, but one thing is clear: it is not the sodium that is the most harmful aspect of road salt, but instead the chloride ions.  These ions seep through the soil, and enter the water systems, including private wells –which can lead to bad taste and smell over a certain concentration.  To make things worse, salt is often coated with an anti-caking agent that contains cyanide, which after degradation in sunlight, is released freely into the environment.

But other studies say that the amount of salt used is hardly worth worrying about, as the required amount of sodium buildup would take decades to acquire.  The Federal Highway Administration said “highway runoff is generally cleaner than runoff from buildings, farms, harbors, or other non-point sources…it is important to recognize that highway runoff need not be and most often is not a serious problem.”

However, repeated research shows that the effects of road deicers are significant and varied.  The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said “Recent research confirm that repeated applications of road salts (i.e., chloride-based deicers) and abrasives or “seepage from mismanaged salt storage facilities and snow disposal sites” may adversely affect the surrounding soil and vegetation, water bodies, aquatic biota, and wildlife.”  Their findings are supported by a multitude of independent studies.

Michigan’s Department of Transportation also studied deicers, looking at their pros and cons as well as chemical composition.  

“In the past, MDOT road salt suppliers used various additives to enhance the road salt’s performance […] Sodium ferrocyanide and ferric ferrocyanide were added to road salt to prevent “caking.” Neither currently is used by the MDOT because under very specific conditions these compounds can generate cyanide, a poison.”

The environmental effects of using salt as a deicer seem varied and of a high enough impact to consider another option.  Beet Heet, pickle juice, sand and of course chemical compounds are all used to melt ice and snow when salt is unusable or unavailable.  And some of them are better for the environment.  Pickle brine releases a lower amount of chloride into the environment, as well as melting ice at lower temperatures, but its availability is limited.  Beet Heet, a product of K-Tech Specialty Coatings Inc., is an organic based liquid deicer that is 99 percent biodegradable, and carries the EPA’s Safer Choice label.

In Wisconsin, they use cheese brine –the salty water soft cheeses float in.  It is readily abundant in Wisconsin, and it has been found to not freeze until -21°F.  However, the brine is still mixed with rock salt (at a rate of eight gallons per ton of rock salt).  It has a huge potential for saving money.  In 2013, they saved about $40,000, which is significant enough for them to continue the process.

So as winter rolls on its merry way again, the conversation of deicers once again falls by the roadside.  And with it, the environment.