10 million gallons of de-icer forecast
SUMMIT COUNTY – Drivers won’t see any changes in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s use of magnesium chloride in the High Country this season – which, depending on how one feels about the de-icer, could be a good thing or a bad thing.
Citizens throughout the state have complained that the chemical kills trees that line highways, causes power outages and corrodes brakes and vehicle wiring systems.
The Department of Transportation announced this week that it will use the same amount of the de-icer in the Front Range as it did last year, but noted that that’s almost twice as much as the agency used during the winter of 2001-2002. It currently sprays about 10 million gallons of magnesium chloride on Colorado highways.
State transportation chief Tom Norton said liquid de-icers make roads safer and help reduce traffic accidents. Norton said that while his agency is monitoring the effects of magnesium chloride, he believes the switch to liquid de-icers has been better for the environment. Residue from the heavy use of salt and sand mixtures in the past contributed to air pollution, Norton said.
Officials in Summit County were barraged by phone calls from irate citizens last spring, who complained the de-icer was ruining the chrome on their cars, freezing lug nuts on their tires and eroding other vital engine parts, notably brakes.
County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom’s vehicle repeatedly suffered flat tires that tire specialists ultimately blamed on accumulations of magnesium chloride on the wheel that prevented the tire from holding a seal.
The outcry also resulted in the majority of towns and the county banning the wintertime use of the product. Dillon carefully monitors the use of both sand and magnesium chloride to protect water in Straight Creek, which supplies the town with water.
Frisco recently decided to go back to magnesium chloride use.
On the other side of the valley, the Department of Transportation uses magnesium chloride on the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70 as part of its attempt to reduce the amount of sand that washes down into the waterway.
“It’s a balancing act,” said agency spokeswoman Stacey Stegman. “Because we’re so concerned about the environment, particularly in the High Country where we’ve done major damage to streams because of the amount of sand and silt runoff, liquid de-icers provide a positive balance.”
The Department of Transportation has no plans to abandon the de-icer soon, although it continues to monitor its effects on the environment.
The agency often points out that switching from a salt and sand mixture to include magnesium chloride was instrumental in the dissipation of Denver’s infamous brown cloud. Sand was the primarily to blame for the cloud’s existence.
Sand will never completely leave the picture, however. Magnesium chloride is usually applied before a storm – and then, only at specific temperatures – to lower the freezing point and help the snow melt. Sand is used to apply traction to slippery roads.
“We’ll switch to whichever product is most appropriate at that time,” Stegman said. “Safety is our No. 1 reason for any decision making. And when it comes to choosing between a product and life, we’re going to err on the side of safety and do the best job for the traveling public.”
Some companies on the Front Range, notably Xcel Energy, whose power lines experienced outages due to the corrosive properties in “mag” chloride, are working with the Department of Transportation to minimize problems this winter. Xcel is replacing insulators with new material that is more resistant to magnesium chloride and is using new cleaning techniques to remove the substance.
And Mike Silverstein, a planner in the state’s Public Health and Environment department, maintains the sticky stuff isn’t any more toxic than salt and sand.
Club 20, the Western Slope lobbying group, last week declined to join the Department of Transportation’s safe winter driving campaign, saying it was too focused on building support for the use of magnesium chloride.