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
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
“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.”