Road salt use raises environmental concerns

Green Bay Public Works Department salt barn, January 29, 2018 (WLUK/Eric Peterson)

GREEN BAY (WLUK) -- Truckloads of salt used to treat highways our winters may be taking a toll on the environment.

A recent study suggests more than 40 percent of lakes surveyed in the Midwest and Northeast have more salt than before.

When wintry weather hits Northeast Wisconsin, cities like Green Bay typically hit back with salt.

"It's definitely one of the more prominent tools in the toolbox that we utilize," said Steve Grenier, Green Bay Public Works Director.

Grenier says in a typical winter season, the City Public Works Department goes through about 7,000 tons of salt.

"As it melts the snow or ice, that turns into saltwater. The saltwater gets into the storm sewer," he said.

Salt in the water is raising environmental concerns. Studies suggest long-term use may put aquatic life such as microplankton and fish at risk.

Professors at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay measure salt content in streams running into the Fox River and eventually the waters of Green Bay.

"We are able to see in the winter time, that during high salt usage times, that the level of salt, or conductivity, in the water does increase particularly after snow melt, or rainfall events," said Kevin Fermanich, UW-Green Bay Environmental Sciences Profesor.

City officials say trucks spray a salt-brine mixture on roads ahead of a storm, reducing salt use by about 25 percent. At the state level, The Department of Transportation is experimenting with liquid-only routes in five counites around Wisconsin.

"By using brine, we can use a lot less salt on our roadways, and still maintain safe roadways during the winter times," said Chris Blazek, DOT Maintenance Supervisor.

Meanwhile, the Public Works Department says as winter continues, it will try to plow more, and use fewer chemicals. But the salt and brine aren't going away.

"Is it a concern? Yes. Is it something we need to be aware of? Yes. Do people need to take steps to minimize, avoid, try to find better things? Yes. Are we all going to die tomorrow? No," said Grenier.

There are other ways municipalities are exploring to treat the roads. Those include beet juice, molasses, and even waste products from beer and cheese.

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