University explores environmentally-friendly alternatives to road salt

Chelsey Fisher

Road salt used to help melt ice has several damaging effects on vegetation and aquatic environments.

The university has been exploring alternative de-icing methods that are better for the environment, Landscape Services Superintendent Jim Bryan said.

The university uses calcium chloride from Detroit Salt Co., Bryan said.
If at all possible, the crew tries to use less than the directions suggest, but that depends on the weather conditions, he said.

Safety is the biggest concern and using the right amount of salt is like a balancing act

Safety, effectiveness and the environment are all factors that must be considered, he said.

Landscape Services has experimented with two different organic solutions, but neither proved to be effective, Bryan said.

A beer distillery byproduct was used, but was ineffective in melting the ice in low temperature conditions. Landscape Services has also tried a sugar beet byproduct, but they experienced issues with the product stopping up equipment, Bryan said.

He said that it is difficult to find a product that is effective in all weather conditions.

“Salt can be quite toxic if it’s in large amounts,” biology professor Howard Neufeld said.

Salt can run off of paved roads into streams and have negative effects on aquatic organisms. Salt is sprayed onto vegetation by passing cars, Neufeld said.

“If you have ever driven between Blowing Rock and Boone, you’ll notice a lot of pine trees have brown needles on the side facing the road, and that’s a direct impact of the de-icing salt,” he said.

When salt enters the soil, it can kill roots or be transported to plant shoots. The salt can accumulate to toxic levels and cause leaf death, Neufeld said.

Sometimes, dark-colored grit is used to provide better traction on the roads, but is not necessarily effective in melting the ice, Neufeld said. The grit will also run off into streams and could alter the habitats of organisms such as crayfish and aquatic insects.

“Nothing is good, because every time you throw something on the road, it ends up in the stream,” Neufeld said.

Pulses of salt into a stream could cause a short-term kill, and then, as the salt is washed downstream, the stream may recover, Neufeld said. Long-term accumulation of salt can lead to an increase in the salinity of a body of water, which could harm sensitive species.

Several studies have shown the negative environmental effects of de-icing salt, and researchers are trying to discover effective alternatives that are less damaging, Neufeld said.

Bryan attends a snow summit each year to try to stay up-to-date with new technologies and ice removal methods. Landscape Services is continuing to explore alternatives that would be better for the environment, he said.

Story: JULIEANNE PIKE, Intern News Reporter