Seattle's salt-free snow response raises hackles

In an effort to preserve the health of marine life, officials in Seattle are opting not to use salt to help clear their roads after a series of major snowstorms.

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A snowboarder heads down a side street in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood last week. City officials have avoided using salt to remove the snow, instead opting to make the roads "snow-packed."

In an effort to preserve the health of marine life, officials in Seattle are opting not to use salt to help clear their roads after a series of major snowstorms.

Instead, the city is sprinkling sand on top of the snow to improve traction, and using an environmentally friendly, soy-based de-icer that is effective only at below-freezing temperatures. The Seattle Times quotes a city official, who explains that the Emerald Ivory City is seeking to make its roads snow-packed instead of snow-free.

"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." ...
"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."

Predictable outcome

The results of putting sand on top of icy snow are pretty much what you would expect. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer gives the details:

Sunday was full of car crashes, even after several pleas from State Patrol and local police to stay off the roads.
The State Patrol responded to 157 collisions Sunday in King County. Troopers also responded to another 312 disabled vehicles.
Between noon and midnight on Saturday, the State Patrol responded to 246 collisions and disabled vehicles in King County.

Also as expected, conservative bloggers have taken the opportunity to accuse Seattle officials for placing the safety of marine life before that of the city's human residents. Commentator Michelle Malkin singled them out as the "Enviro-nitwits of the day":

Seattle’s no-salt policy is endangering lives. It’s just the latest example of enviro-nitwit-ism from greenies in the Puget Sound, who would rather force commuters to risk accidents than “pollute” salty sea water with more salt.

Is salt really worse than sand?

The Post-Intelligencer (P-I) explains that the rationale for avoiding salt – a policy that dates to the mid-90s – has more to do with protecting the freshwater streams that feed into Puget Sound:

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."

But the alternative also has major drawbacks. According to the P-I, city workers have dumped 8,500 tons of sand on city streets, more than has been used in the past three years combined.

All this sand adds up. Another article in the Seattle Times says that sand is actually more likely to harm aquatic life than salt. When the snow melts, the sand washes into waterways, clogging up drainage systems along the way, and making it hard for insects – a key part of the food chain – to cling to rocks.

Also, when sand dries, it contributes to airborne dust concentrations. The Washington Department of Transportation points out that some parts of the state, like Spokane, have had to limit their use of sand because of air-quality concerns.

A balanced response?

Seattle Times blogger Joni Balter says that she generally approves of the Seattle's sodium-free diet, but she says that there must be exceptions:

This is the kind of overbearing government action that turns ordinary, green-friendly yet practical people against environmental ideas.
Current conditions are a once-in-a-decade event. So here we sit, sit being the operative word, trying to get around at the peak of the Christmas shopping season. Businesses that were already struggling are getting pounded by a lack of access. Mayors are remembered fondly - or otherwise - for the way in which they handle a crisis. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a crisis.

The Times also reports that state officials are brewing up a new mix made of recycled ingredients that perhaps everyone can be happy with. The mixture is 75 percent saltwater collected from a cheese factory, 5 percent calcium chloride, and 20 percent de-sugared molasses. The last ingredient helps the mixture stick to roadways.

One transportation official called the new de-icer a "silver bullet." It's currently made at only one site, but transportation officials are considering making it at five more locations so they can supply the stuff to the entire state.

The sooner, the better: weather reports say there is more snow on the way.

Update: On Dec. 31, the Seattle mayor's office announced that it is amending it's no-salt policy.  Now salt will be used to clear roads when snowfall exceeds 4 inches or if ice is predicted.

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