Seattle refuses road salt, roads snow-packed "by design"

Roads have become snowpacked by design, as city officials have turned away from use of road salt to melt away ice.
Roads have become snowpacked by design, as city officials have turned away from use of road salt to melt away ice.

Anger is growing over the city of Seattle’s policy against use of rock salt to clear city roads following winter storms.  While the policy has apparently been in place for years, it has gotten its biggest test this month as the area has been socked by several significant winter storms:

“We’re trying to create a hard-packed surface,” said Alex Wiggins, chief of staff for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “It doesn’t look like anything you’d find in Chicago or New York.”

This strategy is a result of  the city’s policy against the use of the traditional, cheap, and effective de-icer:  rock salt.  While many would disagree with Wiggins on this approach, few would argue that he is correct on one point – this is unlike conditions that would be found in many other cold-climate large cities such as Chicago or New York where use of road salt is commonplace.

The road crews admit the effectiveness of road salt, but decry its effects on the environment; mainly, nearby (salt water) Puget Sound:

“If we were using salt, you’d see patches of bare road because salt is very effective,” Wiggins said. “We decided not to utilize salt because it’s not a healthy addition to Puget Sound.”

By ruling out salt and some of the chemicals routinely used by snowbound cities, Seattle has embraced a less-effective strategy for clearing roads, namely sand sprinkled on top of snowpack along major arterials, and a chemical de-icer that is effective when temperatures are below 32 degrees.

Not only have they dropped road salt as a clearing option, but they’ve also gone to rubber snow plows:

Seattle also equips its plows with rubber-edged blades. That minimizes the damage to roads and manhole covers, but it doesn’t scrape off the ice, Wiggins said.

Rear-wheel drive police cruisers are having a difficult time navigating the hills on city streets and are forced to result to other means of responding to calls:

The city’s patrol cars are rear-wheel drive. And even with tire chains, officers are avoiding hills and responding on foot, according to a West Precinct officer.

For much more on the ongoing debate over the use of road salt, see the Seattle P-I’s follow-up story:  When it’s time to clear roadways, Seattle halts the salt:

What they haven’t used is rock salt, a good but some say environmentally unfriendly way to clear the roads of snow and ice.  In the mid-1990s, the city decided not to use the more corrosive salt, and instead it uses GeoMelt C, a liquid blend of calcium chloride in a soy base. The de-icer is thought to be gentler on the environment and considered better for the Puget Sound waterway, where eventually much of it will end up.

But the potential harm to the Sound when weighed against the harm done to the city as measured by traffic accidents, the economic impact of lost business, halted garbage service, and other impediments caused by impassable roads, the adversity to salt is hardly a consensus:

A 2005 study focusing on the Northeast, where massive amounts of road salt are applied annually, found that some streams were one-quarter as salty as sea water, and were killing animals and fish. A second study that year found that the use of rock salt to melt street ice had increased a hundredfold nationally since 1940.

The second study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a science journal, concluded:

“In summary, no one is suggesting that society should instantly ban rock salt use. Nonetheless … there are real, long-term consequences to its use, particularly for freshwater systems and soils. … A prudent step would be to adopt a ‘less is more’ policy, reducing the amounts of salt applied and considering alternatives where economically feasible.”

Anger is growing over the tactics employed over the last week, as many complain that once you get out of the city, travel is manageable in other locations that more traditional means of snow- and ice-clearing are employed.   Joel Connely says it’s time to get angry about city’s response to snow:

Instead of the mellow attitude urged by my newspaper on Tuesday morning, I would suggest that the public adopt a demeanor that famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith suggested in dealing with unresponsive bureaucracies: “Cultivate a modest aspect of menace.”

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