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Could organic solutions one day be part of WNY's road de-icing strategy?

WBFO file photo

The need for road salt on Western New York roadways has been limited so far this winter. But when wintry conditions are anticipated, municipal highway departments roll out their salt trucks as part of the effort to keep roads as clear and safe as possible. Some, more recently, have begun exploring the inclusion of organic components.

The Town of Tonawanda, for the past five years, has used a briny mix which may include a product known as Magic Minus Zero, which features a blend of magnesium chloride and... molasses. Other food products or by-products used in de-icing mixtures include corn and sugar beets.

"These beet products, they're sort of beet waste," said Dr. Jason Benedict, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University at Buffalo. "These companies have an incentive to try and actually offload their waste. But it dissolves in water and, thus, it's going to lower the melting point of the ice through mixing."

When temperatures are closer to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, however, highway superintendents are more likely to use traditional road salt. But they're mindful of how much is used. Patrick Lucey, Highway Superintendent for the Town of Amherst, says traditional salt remains the most effective means to melt or prevent ice at temperatures in the low 30s. But he quickly recognizes problems.

"If you just put salt down, you have cars running over it, it gets dispersed to the sides of the road by the friction of the tires," he said.

It not only lessens the efficiency of the salt but, Lucey acknowledges, salt is also harmful to pets' paws as they walk through intersections while on walks with their owners. Salt truck in the Town of Amherst have been fitted to include tanks which may hold a briny solution which, according to Lucey, helps the salt stick to the roadway.

"Our people are trained to use as little salt as possible," he said. "We want to get the job done to make the roads safe, but I don't want salt laying all over the roads and having piles of it. It's not good for the environment."

Much of it ends up in ground water and ultimately in waterways. However, while in theory a fully organic mixture could also eliminate ice, Benedict warns that too much organic de-icing solution being released into area waterways could also pose an environmental problem.

That problem? Possibly creating a food source for unwanted species.

"A lot of bacteria, algae, things of that nature, these will start to feed on these sugars and could potentially go pulling oxygen out of the water and, potentially, suffocate the fish below," he said. "We hear of algae blooms and things like that. That could be an unintended consequence."

Benedict welcomes the idea of reducing salt from de-icing strategies but advises highway superintendents to be cautious when planning for the future. Lucey says the Town of Amherst, which currently purchases briny solution from the Town of Clarence, is exploring organic alternatives but is still months away from introducing it.

"We have purchased the tanks where we can mix the brine with the organic material. They're sitting in my yard now, it's just a question of setting them up, getting power to them," he said. "Then we can start, instead of having to transport the material from another highway department or another agency, we can store it here and fill our trucks up faster and apply it at a quicker pace. I'm hoping by next year at this time we'll be in operation with that."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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