Road Salt Damage

  • Overuse of salt can cause damage to concrete, steel and the environment. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Each year about 118,000 people are hurt and 1,300 people are killed on
the roads during snowy and icy conditions. So, snowplows hit the
roads, scraping snow and ice off the surface… and spreading
incredible amounts of salt on highways, streets and roads to help keep
them clear. Lester Graham reports there’s some concern about the long-
term effects of all that salt:

Transcript

Each year about 118,000 people are hurt and 1,300 people are killed on
the roads during snowy and icy conditions. So, snowplows hit the
roads, scraping snow and ice off the surface… and spreading
incredible amounts of salt on highways, streets and roads to help keep
them clear. Lester Graham reports there’s some concern about the long-
term effects of all that salt:


This dump truck is getting ready for a load of salt for a coming
winter storm. Salt helps make icy roads safer. It helps prevent
people from slipping and falling on sidewalks. And… it’s pretty
cheap. But there are problems with salt. Salt pollutes and salt
corrodes.


Mark Cornwell has spent a good deal of his career trying to convince
highway crews that there are better ways to keep things safe and reduce
how much salt is dumped on roads and sidewalks:


“Salt basically damages just about everything it comes in contact
with. Salt moves through concrete and attacks structural steel,
bridges, roads, parking structures; it eats the mortar out of bricks
and foundations. It damages limestone, you know, just on and on and
on.”


So, even though salt is cheap, the damage it does costs a lot. It’s a
hidden cost that’s seldom calculated. Imagine the cost of having to
replace a bridge five years early because the structure is weakened by
salt. And then there are your direct costs: trying to keep salt
washed off your vehicle, and still seeing rust attack your car.


Cornwell says there are some cities and road commissioners working to
reduce the amount of salt spread on the roads. But in most places, the
political pressure to get the salt trucks out early, and laying it on
thick to keep drivers happy, outweighs any concerns about trying to
reduce the salt:


“I’m sure the public expects full attention to snow and ice. And they
have absolutely no understanding, however, of what it costs to provide
that.”


Nobody thought a lot about the damage salt was causing until the last
couple of decades. In a few places, the people responsible for keeping
the roads and walkways safe have been trying to reduce the amount of
salt they use and still keep public safety tops on the list of
concerns:


“So, this is our shops. The brine-maker is right here.”


Marvin Petway is showing me some of the tools in his arsenal to reduce
how much salt is used and still keep things safe. He works at the
University of Michigan, where there’s a goal to cut the amount of salt
used in winter in half. What they’ve learned is using innovative ways
of putting down salt can actually help melt snow and ice faster. One
way is to mix it with water to get the chemicals in salt working
a little more quickly:


“Why use 5 pounds of rock salt when you can use 2 gallons of liquid
salt? We’re able to get better coverage, quicker, better cost, and
we’re putting the material that is effective in reducing ice build-up
directly to the area where we don’t want ice located.”


The crews trying to reduce salt use computer assisted spreaders to
measure out only the salt needed, they mix in less corrosive chemicals
that make salt brine more effective, and even just wetting the salt in
dump trucks with chemicals all help to melt snow and ice faster and in
the end use a lot less salt.


Nothing is going to replace salt altogether, but those efforts can add
up to a lot less salt. That means less destruction of infrastructure.


But there are more reasons for reducing salt than the damage to
roadways and parking decks. Salt also damages the environment:


Mark Cornwell first noticed the effects of salt because he was a
horticulturalist. He’d work all spring, summer and fall planting
shrubs, make the grass green, tending beds of flowers. Then the winter
would come:


“Unfortunately what we were doing in six months of winter was
undoing everything we did in the other six months of the year.
If you’re going to get ahead, you’ve got to solve the problem
and in my mind, that was misuse of salt.”


Use too much salt and it kills plants. And it turns out the cost of
using all that cheap salt could be even greater than anyone guessed.
For decades, it’s been assumed that rain washed away most of the salt, but
studies in Ontario find that a lot of the salt doesn’t get washed
away.


Instead, a good deal of it is percolating down into shallow aquifers.
Researchers predict that in the future we’ll start find salt is getting
into the groundwater that supplies many of the wells where we get our
drinking water.


For the Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

The 100 Mile Meal: A Homegrown Thanksgiving

  • Reporter Dustin Dwyer found all the ingredients for his Thanksgiving dinner within 100 miles of his house, including the turkey (poor thing). (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

Thanksgiving is about family, friends, and ridiculous amounts of food. But the food we buy can have a big impact on the environment, and a lot more people are starting to look for local ingredients to put in their meals. One movement encourages people to get all their food from within 100 miles of their home. Dustin Dwyer tried to find out how practical that could be for his Thanksgiving feast:

Transcript

Thanksgiving is about family, friends, and ridiculous amounts of food. But the food we buy can have a big impact on the environment. And a lot more people are starting to look for local ingredients to put in their meals. One movement encourages people to get all their food from within 100 miles of their home. Dustin Dwyer tried to find out how practical that could be for his Thanksgiving feast:


I like to look at labels on my food. I don’t care so much about the nutritional info, I just want to know where it came from.

But there’s a problem with that. Even if I know where something is packaged, I still have no idea where the actual ingredients come from. I mean, where the heck do they make partially hydrogenated soybean oil?

I have no idea. And so, for one meal, for the most important meal of the year, I decided to try to get all my food, and all the ingredients in my food, from within 100 miles of my apartment in Southeast Michigan.

If you’re impressed by my ingenious and creative idea, don’t be. I stole it from someone else. Alisa Smith and her partner James MacKinnon were on a 100 mile diet for a year, and they’re writing a book about it. I called up Alisa for some help.

Dwyer: “So my wife and I are going to do the 100 mile Thanksgiving, and I want to ask some advice.”


Smith: “Oh, great! For doing a single meal you picked a very good time to do it because it’s the harvest bounty, so that makes life a lot easier.”


I’m thinking, excellent, this could be a piece of cake. But I’m worried about a few tough ingredients, such as salt. Alisa says salt is a problem for a lot of people.


“I think in the end, you probably will find that salt isn’t available. And not being able t o make it yourself you might just say ‘okay salt is going to be an exception for us.'”


Ok, fine, but I still wanted to make as few exceptions as possible. I’ve got to have a challenge here, somehow.


That said, our menu would be simple: just turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Turkey turned out to be easy.


“Roperti’s Turkey Farm.”


Christine Roperti has been living on her family’s turkey farm in suburban Detroit all her life. Farms like this one are getting crowded out more and more by suburban sprawl. There’s even a brand new subdivision next door to Christine’s place. There have been offers for her land too.


“Yeah, but I don’t want to go anywhere. I like the farm, and like raising my turkeys.”


I liked knowing that Christine actually enjoys this, and cares about it. It made me feel good. And that’s important, because I was also paying a lot more for her turkey than the store-bought stuff.


Anyway, I was flying high, and things were going really well. My list of exceptions was firming up, and it was mostly spices: salt plus all the spices for the pumpkin pie.


Then, while I was bragging at work about how I’d be able to get almost everything but salt for my local dinner, someone reminded me that there are actually salt mines under the city of Detroit.


Like a good journalist I looked into it, and ended up on the most absurd shopping trip of my life.


“Okay I’m headed over the Ambassador Bridge, going from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. They do have salt mines in Detroit, but they don’t sell that salt as food salt in the US, they only sell road salt. So in order to get food salt that’s made within a hundred miles of my house, I have to go to Canada.”


Because of some trade regulation I don’t understand, table salt from this mine can’t be commercially shipped into the US. So I ended up in a city I barely know, looking for a grocery store. I went into the first, and then the second without finding the right brand of salt. Then an hour or so later, in the third store…


“Finally! Windsor salt.”


So, I wasted a lot of fuel putting this dinner together. It’s probably still an improvement over what the Sierra Club says is an average two thousand miles of driving that goes into each ingredient for my usual dinner.


But here’s the thing: if all this local stuff is available, I think I should be able to get it at the grocery store down the street. I should probably let them know that, and let them know I’m willing to pay more for it. I mean, that’s better than driving to Canada for salt, anyway.


But making that happen would take a lot more effort, a lot more voting with my pocketbook, and a lot more than just checking labels.


For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Related Links

Ten Threats: Closing a Door

  • Coast Guard Marine Science Technician Sheridan McClellan demonstrates some of the equipment used to check the ballast water of foreign ships. Environmentalists believe the Coast Guard should be given the equipment and authority to more thoroughly check the ships for invasive species in ballast water. (Photo by Lester Graham)

In this “Ten Threats to the Great Lakes” series, we found experts across the region point to alien invasive species as the number one challenge facing the Lakes. The Great Lakes have changed dramatically because of non-indigenous species that compete for food and space with native fish and organisms. More than 160 foreign aquatic species have been introduced since the Lakes were opened to shipping from overseas. It’s believed that many of the invasive species hitched a ride in the ballast tanks of ocean-going cargo ships.

Transcript

Today we’ll hear more about Ten Threats to the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the next report in the series:


In this “Ten Threats to the Great Lakes” series, we found experts across the region point to alien invasive species as the number one challenge facing the Lakes. The Great Lakes have changed dramatically because of non-indigenous species that compete for food and space with native fish and organisms. More than 160 foreign aquatic species have been introduced since the Lakes were opened to shipping from overseas. It’s believed that many of the invasive species hitched a ride in the ballast tanks of ocean-going cargo ships.


Foreign ships entering the Great Lakes are boarded and inspected in Montreal, long before the ships enter U.S. Waters. Sheridan McClellan is a marine science technician with the U.S. Coast Guard. He says inspectors take samples of the ballast water and test it onboard ship. He demonstrates the equipment at the Coast Guard lab in Massena, New York.


MCCLELLAN: “And when you look through this refractometer, if you look on the right hand side, you will see the salinity… If you’d like to look through it…”


GRAHAM: “Oh, yeah. I see.”


MCCLELLAN: “You see a line?”


GRAHAM: “Right.”


The inspectors want to see salt in the water. That means the ship exchanged ballast water from a freshwater port with ocean water that kills most freshwater organisms hiding out in the ballasts.


“Once we check all the ballast tanks and they’re all good to go, we tell the captain that he’s allowed to discharge his ballast in the Great Lakes if he so desires.”


And that’s it; if the ship’s ballast contains ocean water and the log shows the water came from deep ocean, it’s good to go. Lieutenant Commander James Bartlett commands the Massena station. He says that’s all the Coast Guard can do.


“We’ve been asked if we are actually checking for the organisms and doing, you know, a species count. Right now, that technology’s not available to us nor, really, do we have that capability in our regulations. It’s essentially, it’s a log check, an administrative, and then also a physical salinity check.”


But a ship can also be allowed into the Great Lakes if its ballast tanks are empty. Ships fill their ballasts tanks to keep the vessel stable in the water. When a ship is fully loaded with cargo, it sits deep enough in the water that it doesn’t need ballast water for stability. It’s declared as “No Ballast on Board,” or NOBOB.


But “No Ballast On Board” does not mean empty; there’s always a little residual water and sediment.


(Sound of footsteps thumping on metal)


Deep inside the S.S. William A Irvin, an out-of-service iron ore ship that’s permanently docked in Duluth, Minnesota, Captain Ray Skelton points out the rusty structure of the ballast tanks.


“You can see by all the webs, scantlings, cross members, frames, just the interior supports for the cargo hold itself, and the complexity of this configuration, that it wouldn’t be possible to completely pump all of the tank.”


And a recent study of NOBOB ships found there’s a lot more than just water and sediment sloshing around in the bottom of the tanks. David Reid headed up the study. He says there are live organisms in both the water and the sediment.


“If you multiply it out, you see that there are millions of organisms even though you have a very small amount of either water or sediment.”


And when ships load or unload they discharge or take on ballast water, that stirs up the water and sediment in the bottom of the ballast tanks along with the organisms they’re carrying from half way around the world, and they end up in the Great Lakes.


The shipping industry says for the past few years, the security regulations since 9/11 have been more important to the industry than dealing with ballast water. Helen Brohl is Executive Director of the U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association. She says the shipping industry hasn’t forgotten; it is paying close attention to concerns about ballast water.


“From my perspective, in ten years, ballast water is not an issue, because in ten years there’ll be treatment technology on most ships. We’re moving right along. Ballast, in some respects, is kind of beating a dead horse.”


But environmentalists and others say ten years to get most of the ships fitted with ballast water treatment equipment is too long. New non-indigenous species are being introduced to the Lakes every few months.


The invasive species that are already in the Great Lakes are costing the economy and taxpayers about five billion dollars a year. The environmentalists insist Congress needs to implement new ballast regulations for the Coast Guard soon.


They also say the Environmental Protection Agency should start treating ballast water like pollution before more invasive species catch a ride in the ballast tanks of the foreign freighters and further damage the Lakes.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Exploring a Great Lakes Salt Mine

  • Salt is an essential resource for all people, especially those who live in areas where the roads get icy. (Photo by Lucian Binder)

Ever wonder where road departments get the mountains of salt they use each winter? Here in the Midwest, the answer can be found deep under Lake Erie. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray has the
story:

Transcript

Ever wonder where road departments get the mountains of salt
they use each winter? Here in the Midwest, the
answer can be found deep under Lake Erie. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Ann Murray has the story:


Orvosh: “Step right in there.”


Murray: “Ok, thanks.”


For Don Orvosh, an elevator ride nearly 2000 feet underground is just part of the daily grind.


(sound of clanking)


“It’s about a four and a half minute ride to the bottom. 1800… about 1800 feet.”


Orvosh supervises the Cleveland salt mine owned by Cargill Corporation. It’s one of only eleven active salt mines in the country. The mine lies beneath the northern edge of Cleveland and extends about four miles under Lake Erie.


Orvosh: “Most people in the city don’t even realize there’s a mine right here.”


Murray: “Are you all the way down?”


Orvosh: “We’re at the bottom right now. This is it.”


(sound of opening air-lock door)


A few feet from the elevator, Orvosh walks through a series of air-locked metal doors. They rotate to reveal a subterranean repair shop. Massive dump trucks and cranes are fixed here. The cavernous room is also the starting point for hundreds of miles of tunnels. These tunnels connect a honeycomb of old and active areas in the mine. Everyday, 150 workers travel this salt encrusted labyrinth by truck or tram.


“We’re going to get in this little buggy here now and in a couple minutes we’ll be under the lake.”


Lake Erie is a geological newcomer compared to the salt buried below it. This bed – extending from upper New York to Michigan – was formed 410 million years ago. That’s when an ancient sea retreated and left behind its brine. Oil drillers accidentally discovered the deposit in the 1860’s. As Orvosh drives north through the dark passageways, he says salt wasn’t extracted here until many years later.


“This shaft was sunk in the late fifties and the actual mining of salt occurred, started in the early sixties so it’s been here 40 plus years.”


In the last four decades, the mining process has stayed pretty much the same. Orvosh compares it to the room and pillar method used in underground coal extraction. He points up ahead to a brightly lit chamber. Machine generated light bounces off the room’s briny, white walls. Its 20 foot high ceiling is bolstered by pillars of salt the size of double-wide trailers.


Orvosh: “This is an active production section. This is where we are mining salt.”


Murray: “What’s happening here?”


Orvosh: “He’s drilling the face here.”


A miner sits atop a machine with a large needle nosed drill. It bores six holes into the seam. Later in the day, workers will load explosives in the holes and blow out big chunks of salt. Farther into the mine, the loose salt from last night’s blasting is being scooped up by front-end loaders and dumped into a crusher. All of the big chunks are broken into small pieces. Then the salt is loaded on conveyor belts and sent to the mine’s three-story-high underground mill. Salt is crushed, sized, screened and sent to the surface by elevator.


All told, the crews at the Cleveland mine produce two million tons of salt a year. A sizable chunk of the 15 million tons of salt used on icy US roads each winter. Demand for road salt has skyrocketed since it was introduced as a de-icer in the early 1950s. But Robert Springer, a 27- year veteran at this operation, says each mine fights for a market share.


Springer: “It is a competitive market. There’s another salt mine just in the Cleveland area, out there in Morton, Morton Salt.”


Murray: “We needed you today. The roads were really icy. Do you look forward to icy days to keep production up?”


Springer: “I guess you could say we look forward to bad weather. We enjoy the bad weather because we know there’s going to be salt used.”


(sound of radio and weather report)


Back on the surface, Bob Springer has gotten his wish… Cleveland has just been hit with a winter storm. At least a dozen trucks swing through the mine’s loading dock to pick up tons of salt. Later in the day, salt will be dumped onto barges and transported across the Great Lakes to places like Chicago and Toronto. This is high season for road salt. The crews here know that come March, they’ll start rousing salt from its ancient bed for the winter of 2006.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Ann Murray.

Related Links

A Road Salt Substitute?

  • Road salt spread on the streets of Ann Arbor, MI has a corrosive effect on this sewer grate. Many cities and states are looking for a less damaging, and more environmentally sensitive alternative to road salt.

With winter officially arriving, many towns and cities in the Midwest are preparing to fight the snow and ice that can make roads slippery and dangerous. That traditionally means spreading salt, but salt is damaging to the environment, so there is a growing movement toward using less corrosive and polluting means to make streets safe. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:

Transcript

With winter officially arriving, many towns and cities in the Great Lakes Region are preparing to fight the snow and ice that can make roads slippery and dangerous. That traditionally means spreading salt. But salt is damaging to the environment. So there is a growing movement toward using less corrosive and polluting means to make streets safe. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:


Rock salt and calcium chloride have been the workhorses of snow removal for many years. Together, they help lower the freezing temperature of snow and slush, making it easier for the snow to be plowed away or worn down by cars before it turns into ice. But along with the good has come a great deal of bad. Besides keeping our streets clear, both chemicals can also pollute nearby waterways. They release chlorides and heavy metals into the environment and their corrosiveness can damage roadways, causing cracking and even potholes. So governments have been trying to find alternatives that can help remove the snow, and do less damage. Among those alternatives are snow and ice melters made of corn by-products. Ari Adler is a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Transportation. He says the department is in the second year of testing those alternatives:


“In Michigan, what we’re doing is we’re actually applying this material by itself, preferably before a snowstorm hits. So it sort of puts like a Teflon coating on and what it does is not allow the snow and ice to bond with the pavement. So its certainly easier to clear away just from people driving over it or if we send a plow, it’s going to clear up quicker than if we had to send a team of plows out after we get snow pack out there.”


Adler says the tests so far have been very encouraging, and his agency plans to increase the use of such products in the future. Manufacturers of corn and soybean based de-icers say there is a growing trend to look to these more natural products. Craig Phelps is with Natural Solutions, a company that makes a product called Ice Ban. It’s made from parts of a cornstalk that are not used for food. The result is a liquid that melts ice and snow even at very low temperatures. Phelps says the product can be used alone, or in combination with salt. He says when used in combination, the product reduces the amount of salt required to keep roads clear:


“The way to decrease the effective use of chlorides is to somehow increase their performance or increase their range of activity. Using a liquid in combination with a granular, dry salt can help. Most highway departments have found they use less salt, so that does decrease the amount of accumulated chlorides in the environment.”


Phelps says the biggest obstacle in getting cities and states to use corn based de icers is the added cost. But he says in addition to the environmental benefits, corn based de-icers will reduce wear and tear on streets, bridges, and cars because it does not have the corrosive effect of salt. Phelps says if those costs are taken into consideration, the corn based products are actually cheaper than salt. But not everyone believes that is true. Dave McKinney is the Operations Director for the City of Peoria, Illinois’ Public Works Department. He says using salt is not a major cause for street repairs in midwestern cities:


“The problem we are having with streets isn’t so much the salt as it is the wear and tear of the freeze-thaw. So yes, there are these benefits, but I don’t think it can offset the cost. Certainly not in my budget.”


McKinney says he has tested the corn-based products, and is satisfied that they work well. But he says Peoria will only use them if the price comes down. And there may be evidence that will happen. The market for corn and soybean based de-icing products has increased by a thousand percent over the past seven years, largely because producers are finding cheaper ways to make the products. And as demand continues to increase, manufacturers say the price will keep dropping. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.

A ROAD SALT SUBSTITUTE? (Short Version)

  • Road salt spread on the streets of Ann Arbor, MI has a corrosive effect on this sewer grate. Many cities and states are looking for a less damaging, and more environmentally sensitive alternative to road salt.

Many highway departments in the Midwest are looking into alternative ways to remove snow and ice from streets. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:

Transcript

Many highway departments in the Midwest are looking into alternative ways to remove
snow and ice from streets. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:


Most states and cities use rock salt and Calcium Chloride to keep streets from becoming
slippery and dangerous, but several companies are marketing additives to salt that they
say are just as effective, but do not include many of the pollutants that come from salt.
Graig Phelps is with Natural Solutions, a company that makes one of the additives:


“There’s a definite move to limit the nutrients that are applied through snow and
ice control. Phosphorus, copper, zinc, irons, and your heavy metals, which also have a
tendency to accumulate.”


Phelps says in addition to reducing pollutants, the additives also cut down on wear and
tear of streets and trucks because the bio-based products are non-corrosive. While the
use of the corn-based de-icers is on the rise, many cities say they have to wait until the
price comes down before converting to the new products. For the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.

Canada to Declare Road Salt Toxic?

Canada’s environment minister is recommending that road salt be classified as a toxic substance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly has details:

Transcript

Canada’s environment minister is recommending that road salt be classified as a toxic substance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports.


Approximately 5 million tons of road salt are used in Canada each winter.
And much of those salts eventually find their way into bodies of water.
The Canadian government recently completed a 5-year study of the environmental effects of road salts.


The scientists found water near some major highways contained as much salt as ocean water. And they concluded freshwater plants; fish and other organisms are being harmed. Canadian environment minister David Anderson has recommended road salt be added to Canada’s list of toxic substances.


But the government is not proposing a ban on salt. Officials are studying ways to reduce its use and improve snow removal techniques to minimize the amount of salt escaping into waterways. The public has 60 days to comment on the plan. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

New Alternative to Road Salt

Snowy, icy roads are a fact of life around the Great Lakes. For years,
de-icing salt has been the weapon of choice to keep roads passable
during the winter months. But the runoff from road salt can pollute
surface and ground water, contaminating wells and causing problems for
fish populations. So researchers have been looking for alternatives.
And now, there’s a new one that looks promising. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports: