Combating Icy Roads Without Salt Is Better for the Environment—but Is It Costing Lives?

After unusual snowfall in her area, Linda Sharps investigates the reasons for Oregon's 'no road ice' policy.

salting roads

(Photo: Raymond Forbes/Getty Images)

Living in Eugene, Oregon with her family, Linda wrangles two rambunctious boys while ignoring the laundry.

It was the fourth day of school being canceled that prompted me to research why the roads in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, were still covered in snow. I mean, part of the reason was pretty obvious: Record low temperatures had prevented anything from melting. But in the midst of an unusual weather system that was closing facilities left and right and resulting in hundreds of traffic accidents, why wasn't the city taking measures to make the roads safer? Why hadn't I seen a single plow or salt truck? 

It turns out there are a number of reasons, the primary one being that we don't get snow very often in the Pacific Northwest, so we aren't particularly prepared for it. The eight inches of snow that fell on Friday, Dec. 6, cost Eugene $75,000 by the Monday—and there was only $60,000 in our road-clearing budget. 

As for why no one was salting the roads, well, we don't do that here in Oregon. Salt is bad for the environment.

I guess I shouldn't say we never do it; just last year Oregon began a five-year "pilot project" to occasionally use salt when other deicing methods aren't working, but salt definitely isn't the go-to method for clearing roads in the Pacific Northwest. Cities fear its corrosive effect on bridges and other infrastructure, but mostly we're opposed to the environmental downsides.

As the chief of staff for the Seattle Department of Transportation stated a few years back, the PacNW doesn't typically even try to clear roads—the goal is to just try to make the snow as drivable as possible:

"We're trying to create a hard-packed surface. It doesn't look like anything you'd find in Chicago or New York. If we were using salt, you'd see patches of bare road because salt is very effective. We decided not to utilize salt because it's not a healthy addition to Puget Sound."

Why is salt—a natural substance, after all—so bad for the environment? It's because more than 22 million tons of road salt are used annually in the U.S., and they don't just magically go away after the snow melts. Salt levels in streams, lakes, and groundwater are steadily increasing, and chloride ions can dehydrate plants, kill small aquatic organisms, and reduce water circulation in lakes.

New deicing techniques are being explored, including "anti-icing," in which a small amount of salt solutions is sprayed down before a storm to prevent ice from freezing to the road in the first place. Officials are also experimenting with environmentally friendly alternatives such as beet juice and cheese brine.

Seriously: cheese brine. The city of Milwaukee is trying out an experimental mix of rock salt and liquid cheese brine, which is described, perhaps unsurprisingly, as having a "distinctive odor."

Okay, so road salt isn't so great for the earth, but dangerous roads aren't good for humans either, right? Salt, which lowers the freezing temperature of water, is widely seen as the most effective way to keep roads from icing up and snow from sticking during storms; isn't that what road crews should be using—particularly when other solutions may be too expensive for our ever-shrinking city budgets? Some in Oregon believe that our anti-salt stance isn't worth the risk to citizens, like this truck driver:

"Am I in the minority that feels like there is a moral obligation to this? At some point we have to see that this is costing lives. I'm tired of seeing cars turned upside down on my route. You can't wait to get out of the state so you can relax."

The argument in the Pacific Northwest seems to be that we so rarely get snow, the best option is to simply wait until it melts. The problem with that approach, as evidenced from our experience earlier this month, is that the snow doesn't always disappear overnight. As the days drag on while more and more accidents pile up (because like it or not, many people still have to get to work, even when it's icy outside), you have to wonder: Are we letting environmental concerns take priority over safety? If so, is that the right choice to make on behalf of an entire state?

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