Whenever there is a snow or ice event in Minnesota, you don’t need to see the area that got impacted to know where it hit. All you need to do is look at vehicles that are streaked with road salt. However, the day may be coming soon where highway plow crews use less road salt and replace it with more environmentally-friendly liquid-based methods of clearing off ice- and snow-covered roads. Wright County has been cutting back on salt usage for more than a decade and its highway department is continually evaluating new products
Wright County Highway Maintenance Superintendent Steve Meyer has seen a lot of different snow/ice removal products come and go, but the staple of most snow/ice removal remains rock salt.
Salt has always been viewed as the most effective mass-produced option for clearing roads because of its ability to melt ice. For decades, the combination of salt and sand was the go-to method to provide traction on icy roads as well as melting ice during and after storms roll through. But, the industry is looking for different products to help effectively clear roads while being conscious of environmental concerns.
For the last couple of winter seasons, Wright County has experimented with a granular de-icing product that it mixes with salt. It looks similar to sand – many motorists have noticed what appears to be sand on the roads during storms, but Meyer said it’s just one weapon in their arsenal to combat winter weather.
“We’ve switched products over the years to find what works best for us,” Meyer said. “We’re trying out a product called Ice Slicer. We mix it 50/50 with our salt. It almost looks like sand, but it’s not. This is the second year we’ve had it. We’re using a little bit more of it this year because we’re cutting back on the actual sodium chloride. It melts good. It works good. It reacts a little differently than salt. We have to spread a little differently than regular salt because it can clump a little bit and people can see that on the road and think we’re sanding or over-salting.”
There has been a growing backlash about using salt to de-ice roads – which has risen nationally from 160,000 tons a year to 20 million tons a year over the last 50 years. Several lakes in the Twin Cities metro area have alarmingly high levels of sodium chloride and a 2017 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that 44 percent of the 371 freshwater lakes that were part of the study showed signs of long-term salinization (salt contamination).
Meyer said the call for change has been around for some time because the salt doesn’t just evaporate. It gets into the water system one way or another.
“There are concerns from people out there every time we salt roads,” Meyer said. “A lot of that has to do with the metro lakes that have high levels of sodium chloride in them. People don’t want that to happen here. Environmental studies have showed that 90 percent of the issue with sodium chloride in lakes has directly to do with salting roads. Down in the metro area, a lot of storm sewer systems run into lakes. Around here we have holding ponds that take a lot of it. But we have runoff and it makes it way into creeks and rivers and lakes.”
Meyer said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has ramped up its effort to get state, county and city plow trucks to use less salt, but the first alternative offered is trying to clear snow and ice the old-fashioned way – heavy scraping.
“We’ve taken a lot of training on what the MPCA calls ‘smart salting,’” Meyer said. “They like to see more mechanical means of removing snow and ice and less chemicals. They would rather have us scrape down to the bare pavement and use salt at a minimum. But, that takes time and we don’t always have time to stay ahead of the snow and especially the ice. There’s a happy medium there someplace. We’re taking proactive measures by experimenting with new products to find ways to be friendlier to the environment.”
The road treatment industry has changed considerably over the last decade-plus, as new products are introduced to the marketplace every year in hopes of finding its niche in a competitive business.
It’s nothing new to Wright County, which has been using such products for a long time.
“We have been using liquid de-icers – checking different products and researching them – for 20 years or so,” Meyer said. “We’re using a product now called Ice B’Gone – magnesium chloride mixed with a carbohydrate product out of the distiller’s industry. It works, but it’s expensive, which is a problem when resources are tight.”
The liquid de-icing industry has found its specialty markets. Some are used before storms, while others are used during and after winter weather events.
“There are three different liquids we use to reduce our salt usage,” Meyer said. “One is a pre-treating liquid. One we mix with the salt. One we use with the spinner on the trucks in conjunction with salt when we’re putting it on the roads during storms.”
Meyer said that the combination of environmental concerns, advancements in scientific technology and individual ingenuity have helped transform the road treatment industry – both for winter weather and for dirt roads that kick up dust in the other three seasons.
Has someone created the ideal solution that checks all the boxes?
“Not yet,” Meyer said. “The industry is changing. It’s leaning more toward liquids. We struggle in Minnesota because of the cold temperatures. A lot of these liquids are only good to a certain temperature. When it gets below that, it isn’t effective. But, they’re coming up with new products that they’re testing all the time. In Wisconsin, they’re using a product from the cheese industry, using a whey-based liquid that they’ve had good luck with, but there just isn’t enough of it around. There are corn-based liquids from the ethanol industry. There are liquids that have come out of the beet industry. There’s something new that comes out every year.”
In his years working on roads, Meyer has seen a lot of products come and go. Some have been more successful than others, but he is convinced the time is coming when someone will find the perfect blend that revolutionizes the road de-icing industry.
“It’s coming,” Meyer said. “The industry is always looking for the next big thing and eventually somebody is going to stumble across the right mixture that is environmentally safe and works really well. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to see the day where they come up with the ideal solution to replace road salt – and I don’t think it’s going to be too far in the future.”