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Why snow removal crews are moving away from rock salt

Posted at 5:24 PM, Feb 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-15 19:18:09-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Road crews have been forced to pre-treat and de-ice Central Virginia’s roads in recent weeks. However, environmentalists are urging localities to take a closer look at what they’re putting on the roadways.

Rock salt is the most abundant and cheapest way to clear the roads, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

Foresters like John Jastrzembski have studied the environmental impacts that sodium chloride has on Mother Nature.

“There’s no doubt it’s a necessary thing, but there are environmental consequences of using salts,” he explained. “There are always traces of the salt deposits whether they leach into the waterway or groundwater or move downriver to the Chesapeake Bay.”

The former forestry professor now works for Davey Tree Expert Company.

His team often repairs and cleans up the mess left behind by rock salt.

“It’s very common for trees to dry out and die along the highways. Very common for tree roots to die - hardwood trees especially,” Jastrzembski stated. “Lawns will turn brown because the salt is taking up the moisture.”

Nick Lopez operates Virginia Snow and Ice Management Inc. based out of Fredericksburg during the Winter storm season.

While VDOT focuses on clearing and treating interstates and the area’s primary roads, Lopez and his crew concentrate on everything else.

“We service apartment complexes, HOAs, shopping centers, distribution centers,” he explained. “We have just over 200 seasonal employees that have joined us for the wintertime to make sure all of our customers are taken care of.”

Lopez is currently switching entirely to using liquids to treat icy surfaces.

He said one ton of salt alone can cover three to four acres.

It takes one ton of salt to make approximately 870 gallons of brine.

Lopez uses 30 gallons of brine to spread across one acre.

Lopez said most contractors apply one ton of salt per acre, which leads to environmental issues.

Others are moving towards non-sodium based liquids like calcium chloride and calcium magnesium acetate solutions.

Those liquids are more expensive than salt but are better for the environment overall.

Michigan enacted a new law this year authorizing MDOT to test the combination of sugar beets and road salt to create a solution called “beet juice.”

Jastrzembski said that solution helps lessen the amount of salt that has to be spread while being environmentally friendly.

VDOT Communications Manager Bethanie Glover said their number one priority is ensuring driver safety.

She wrote in a statement they are also conscious about how much salt they are using to pre-treat and de-ice our roads.

VDOT said it was replacing older salt trucks with more modern equipment to control the amount of salt distributed onto the road.

“Deicing solutions make travel easier for drivers and pedestrians, but they can wreak havoc on vegetation and soil,” said Joel Koci, associate Extension specialist in urban forestry at the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University.

In Northern Virginia, localities have focused on reducing the use of rock salt due to high levels of salinity recorded in the Accotink Creek and local water supply.

Last December, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) facilitated a salt management strategy to address the need for change.

“Salts pollute drinking water sources and are very costly to remove. Salts can wreak havoc on local plants and animals. Due to their corrosive nature, salts increase the costs of maintenance, repair, and replacement of infrastructures like roads, sidewalks, driveways, bridges, and pipes; similar effects are seen on vehicles and other property,” according to their research.

They advised homeowners and property managers can implement best practices now to help keep down on salt leaching into the environment.

They advise:

  • Shovel early and often during and after a winter storm
  • Wait for the sun to melt snow and ice left behind after shoveling
  • Use a traction material, such as a native blend of birdseed, on slick areas.

If you choose to use salt, apply only where salt is needed, allow time for the salt to work, and sweep up any excess or leftover salt to be reused next time.

VDOT’s full statement reads:

The Virginia Department of Transportation’s number one priority is ensuring the safety of the traveling public. During winter weather, the public relies on VDOT’s proven and cost-effective snow and ice control practices that include the application of chloride-based de-icing materials including salt.

VDOT continuously refines best practices to support the most efficient, safe and effective delivery of pre-treatment materials through research and improved management approaches to both save money and reduce impacts.

VDOT is committed to being a good environmental steward, and part of that commitment is using materials responsibly. The agency reinforces the importance of not overusing salt materials to its winter weather crews throughout the Commonwealth, and is replacing older salt trucks with modernized spreaders equipped with spreader speed controls to ensure the appropriate amount of salt is distributed onto roadways.

VDOT has partnered with the Department of Environmental Quality and other stakeholders including the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and the University of Virginia to develop a comprehensive salt management strategy to reduce salt in surface waters, while maintaining its commitment to public safety during winter weather.