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Researchers say road salts are damaging Lake Erie

Snow, ice, and tough travel conditions are in our future. But the way we treat our roadways could be doing harm to the biggest source of drinking water in our region.
Snow, ice, and tough travel conditions are in our future. But the way we treat our roadways...
Snow, ice, and tough travel conditions are in our future. But the way we treat our roadways could be harming the biggest source of drinking water in our region. Some have considered beet juice de-icer, but it discolors water, changing the way that plants in the water can take in sunlight.(wtvg)
Published: Dec. 14, 2021 at 5:47 PM EST
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OREGON, Ohio (WTVG) - We’ve been using road salts like this for about 80 years, but scientists are finding out in the past few decades that it’s actually not good for our environment.

“When we apply things like road salts, over the decades, these things have washed into the freshwater ecosystems.” Dr. Bill Hintz, an Assistant Professor that’s been studying the issue for six years at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center, said.

And it adds up quickly. “Spring rains and the snowmelt pretty much immediately transport these things into local streams, wetlands, our groundwaters,” he explained.

That extra salt is affecting everything in Lake Erie. He says in many species, he’s seen “suppressed reproduction, low survival rates, reduced growth rates of things like fish and macroinvertebrates.”

And saltier water is affecting everything that relies on Lake Erie too.

“We pull our drinking water from these sources,” he said. “Road salts reduce accident rates by over 78%. So, it’s difficult to say, ‘let’s stop using them’.”

But Hintz says that there’s no clear alternative to rock salt.

“Some people suggest sand as an alternative. Sand has its own issues, one being it does contain nutrients. It’s going to be adding a little bit of nutrients to the water, and in this area, we know about algal blooms pretty well.”

Some have considered beet juice salt, but it discolors water, changing the way that plants in the water can take in sunlight.

Removing the salt, he says, isn’t feasible. “It’s really difficult to get sodium chloride out of water. The process of pulling salts out of water is really, really expensive and typically doesn’t occur on a massive scale unless you’re pulling water from along the coasts.”

He says there are ways to try to cut down on how much salt is physically used. “A live-edge plow conforms to the road surface, so it removes snow and ice much more efficiently,” he explains. Efficient snow and ice removal would improve driving conditions before any road treatments are applied. Hintz says that precise, targeted forecasts would allow road crews to only use salt, and appropriate amounts of salt, in locations that would need it during a certain timeframe: “Apply the salt where it’s needed, when it’s needed, and how much is needed,” he explains.

Pre-treatments can help, too. “Pre-wetting and brining, which causes the salt to stay on the road surface,” he tells 13abc, “If you’ve ever followed a salt truck, you see it bouncing all over the roads.”

Drivers, Hintz says, can also contribute to less salt use.

“When we have a snow or ice storm, try to stay home if you can, or slow down. It is the public’s demand and level of service that we expect, in a horrible snowstorm or ice storm, to still go 65 mph on I-75. Well, you should probably think about going a lot slower. If we as a public reduce that expectation of how clear the roads are, we may not have to apply so many road de-icing salts.”

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