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Road salt is hurting the environment, but what are the alternatives?

Posted at 6:43 AM, Dec 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-07 09:43:35-05

It's beginning to look a lot like winter in parts of the U.S., and that means, roads are about to get more dangerous as winter weather creates slippery conditions.

There is no question that road salt saves lives. A study from Marquette University found salt reduces accidents by up to 88% and injuries by up to 85%.

But, salt also has consequences. Officials in Michigan are trying to balance the impact salt has on the environment with the safety it provides motorists.

Each year, more than 19 million tons of road salt is used in the United States, according to the National Minerals Infomation Center. Then, it washes off the roads.

Oakland County Water Resource Commissioner Jim Nash said next to roads, on salty ground, invasive plants thrive due to salt. Those invasive plants are basically ocean shore plants that thrive off the salt from oceans that ends up in the ground.

"Salt running off into freshwater systems can change the salinity of those downstream waterways," Nash said.

Megan Tinsely, the water policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said if we don't use less salt over time, the impact will grow and could impact drinking water.

The Michigan Environmental Council is hosting an event on this issue on Friday.

Craig Bryson, the senior communications manager for the Road Commission of Oakland County, said the commission has looked at alternatives for salt. But, the bottom line for them is motorist safety.

For example, the commission has tried out beet juice but found it attracted animals to the road.

So far, when it comes to cost and performance, nothing matches salt.

"We are concerned about the environment and have in-house environmentalists who monitor everything we do and we try to do things as green as we can," Bryson said.

The equipment has improved over the years. For example, brine tanks and brine make the salt go further.

"In the old days, the bed of the truck was the salt spreader. You raised the bed and gravity forced it out at the same rate," Bryson said. "We have computerized spreaders now that are hooked to the speedometer on the vehicle."

The road commission says it gets more calls from people who want to see more salt than those concerned about salt.

"I can get a call at 3 in the morning that I have to be somewhere. And if the roads aren’t great, you have a problem," Art Weiss said.

Weiss is an attorney who is often on call for police unions to address issues that arise day or night, winter and summer. He said he is grateful salt keeps our roads safe, but he also cares about the environment.

"That is the most precious thing we have in Michigan. This is the water wonderland. The Great Lakes state," Weiss said.

This article was written by Kim Russell for WXYZ.