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On the road to surviving winter, cities stretch salt supply

A Chicago Streets Sanitatiworker grooms pile road salt this week. Although Chicago says it has good supply many suburban communities

A Chicago Streets and Sanitation worker grooms a pile of road salt this week. Although Chicago says it has a good supply many of the suburban communities are running out of salt after an unusually cold and snowy start to the winter. | Scott Olson~Getty Im

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Updated: March 8, 2014 6:27AM



When snow and ice threaten, liquid cheese brine and road salt are mixed to pre-treat roads in parts of Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, a beet-derived de-icing product is being used, as part of a pilot program, to fight snow and ice on the roads.

And in northwest suburban Elgin, a “super mix” including organic sugars from beet juice is helping the city stem road salt use by 35 percent.

It’s the new essential thing — cities figuring out ways to save money by stretching supplies of road salt, which now averages $200 a ton because of high demand this winter, a whopping increase from the average $50 a ton. Road salt is made with rock salt.

To ensure its own salt supply lasts, the city of Elgin built its own processing and manufacturing facilities — investing about $45,000 in 2009 — to produce a de-icing “super mix,” a combination of traditional road and other salts, water, calcium chloride and the organic sugars from beet juice. The return on investment came a year later, a city official said.

“It’s so cheap to make. It costs 25 cents a gallon. With that, we’re able to reduce the [road] salt usage by as much as 35 percent,” Elgin Public Works Superintendent Dan Rich said. “It’s huge. It’s a huge [money] saver for us and it’s also used to de-ice the roads in the fall and spring when you get those ridiculous frosts. . . . It takes care of us.”

Rich said the mix — a liquid — prevents ice and snow from forming on the pavement. Invented by the McHenry County Department of Transportation, the product can overcome subzero temperatures, something traditional salt mixtures cannot do, Rich said.

“I’ve been out in 22 below with that stuff and it’s running water like a spring day,” Rich said of the liquid mix,” adding: “It’s really good.”

Although there has been talk of a salt shortage, Rich says he’s confident he’s got enough salt for the “super mix” to last through the season.

“Our plows have had stellar success using the salt liquid,” Rich said. “Even if we get close to running out of salt, I’ve got three or four more snow events that we can just use the spray, no issue.”

Polk County Wisconsin’s highway department has been blending liquid cheese brine, considered a waste in the dairy world, into the county’s salt supply since 2008.

“We inject anywhere from five to 12 gallons . . .[per] ton of cheese brine with the salt and that saves us approximately up to 30 percent of salt usage,” said Emil Norby, technical support manager for the county’s highway department.

Norby says the brine — the salt and water solution used to store cheese in its curing and cooling process — is free, and the dairy farms are saving about $25,000 a year in money they would have used to get rid of the product: “It’s basically a version of recycling,” he says.

Norby swears by the cheese brine, which he says activates the salt faster. He says rock salt works better in a liquid state. As snow melts around rock salt, the brine makes it work better.

“It just turns into a liquid faster,” Norby said, adding: “The organics in the cheese brine tend to go to a lower freezing point. It works in a little bit colder temperatures.”

And he’s not a fan of sand, which is often used to stretch many salt mixtures.

“Sand has no melting ability with snow. It just sticks to the ground and it’s not environmentally friendly, filling in fish beds in lakes and streams,” Norby said.

In southwest suburban Tinley Park, crews have already used about 75 percent of the salt supply .

“We’re about twice the pace of a normal average sort of winter and we knew that we needed to start to conserve a little bit more, which means apply a little bit less,” Tinley Park Public Works Director Dale Schepers said.

“We don’t quite have the clean look at the end of a storm. There’s a little bit of snow that doesn’t melt that’s all the way backed to the curb. But it’s a fairly small price to pay for conserving the salt and not having to go into the market where right now it’s over $200 a ton.”

Tinley Park’s salt mix uses sand to help the supply go a little further. But Schepers, an engineer, is not quite ready to experiment with cheese brines or beet juice. His version of saving includes using liquid chloride, which he says saves as much as the other solutions.

“It’s pretty much a brine solution. It’s nothing magic. It does save 35 percent, though,” Schepers said.

Schepers says he doesn’t see the cost benefit of switching to alternate solutions, at least not yet: “We’re kind of right on the cusp of exploring, but not right there yet.”

Chicago still has enough salt to keep roads safe, according to city spokeswoman Molly Poppe: “We are still receiving shipments from local vendors and we are continuing to pick up salt from regional salt sites as well. We’re still picking things up and still having the salt delivered.”

The Illinois Department of Transportation also confirmed its salt supply is still adequate.

“IDOT primarily uses salt, salt brine and calcium chloride for their effectiveness in clearing roadways of snow and ice at a relatively low cost,” said agency spokeswoman Jae Miller. “However, IDOT continues to research and test other alternatives and enhancements, including beet juice and corn-based additives, to find additional effective options for Illinois.”

Email: tsfondeles@suntimes.com

Twitter: @TinaSfon



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