Mag chloride use not a hot issue in many cities
Growing concern over the environmental and health impacts of theliquid de-icing agent known as magnesium chloride is a decidedlylocal affair.An informal survey of newspapers and road departments around thestate – from Durango to Craig to Sterling – reveals that thereare few complaints about mag chloride, at least where it is beingused. In fact, the only other communities where it has made anyheadlines are Breckenridge and Durango.Its use has never been an issue in Boulder, Grand Junction orDenver; and mag chloride isn’t used at all in Sterling, Salidaand Craig. “We don’t use it here,” said Craig Daily Press editor Chris Mathers.”And the state doesn’t come up here too often, at least not forthat purpose.”Randy Call, the supervisor of streets in Colorado’s northwesternmostcity, said that drivers in Craig can negotiate snow-covered streetsso well that his department doesn’t put a plow to the ground untilat least two inches have fallen. And the state, he confirmed,doesn’t apply mag chloride to roads in Moffat County.Like their brethren in Craig, drivers in Aspen, Basalt and SnowmassVillage may also become accustomed to driving on snow-packed streets,as all three jurisdictions have either stopped or sharply curtailedtheir use of mag chloride.Town officials at Snowmass Village say they have been cuttingback on their use of mag chloride for two years, partly becauseof fears about its effects on soils and wetlands. The Basalt TownCouncil banned its use in December, after the local distributorand manufacturer refused to reveal the specific chemical makeupof the product. And the Aspen City Council last week directed its streets departmentto use as little mag chloride as possible until its long-termeffects on the environment can studied.Magnesium chloride is a salt that is mined by evaporating saltwater from the sea or the Great Salt Lake, said University ofColorado chemistry professor Arlan Norman.”Its role as a de-icing agent is really just the same as sodiumchloride,” he said. “It lowers the melting point of ice.” Whenapplied correctly, magnesium chloride turns ice to water at temperaturesas low as 7 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Aspen streetdepartment.Unlike sodium chloride, however, magnesium chloride is spreadin liquid form, allowing for more even distribution and the additionof other chemicals to increase its effectiveness and reduce itscorrosiveness. The Colorado Department of Transportation plansto apply more than four million gallons on state roads, includingHighway 82, this year, and some local street departments aroundthe state are also using it.In Grand Junction, mag chloride is one of several substances usedto make driving safer, said Superintendent of Streets Doug Cline.”We’re using it a lot more in combination with regular road salt.”Cline said the most attractive things about mag chloride are therust inhibitor added to protect cars, and the fact that it canbe applied before a snowstorm as a preventive measure. Although magnesium chloride can be an environmental problem likeany other salt, Cline pointed out that farm irrigation depositsmuch more salt into the Colorado River than road crews. “But wealso know that any is some – what we add is part of the total,”he said, “and we try to be sensitive to the environment.”In Sterling and Salida, mag chloride isn’t an issue, accordingto sources in each city, because it isn’t used. The city of Sterling,in Colorado’s northeast corner, only budgets for two snowstormseach year; and Salida, in the south central mountains, is locatedin a “banana belt” and only gets enough snow to justify plowinga few times each year.Durango, in southwest Colorado, spread nearly 8,000 gallons ofthe de-icer on city streets last year, according to city publicworks department. But Durango Herald editor Doug Storm said magchloride has been used quite sparingly since a local group raisedconcerns a few years ago.”It never got to be a real big issue,” Storm said. “The city madesome kind of compromise with the group that was worried aboutit.”The Breckenridge street department started using mag chlorideabout three years ago, said Breckenridge Journal managing editorJane Stebbins. Locals immediately complained about reduced visibilitybecause of the film it leaves on windshields, and they claimedstreets that were often more slippery after it was applied, shesaid.Stebbins said her Summit County community has cut back sharplyon its use of mag chloride, although unlike here, the de-icer’senvironmental effects have never been an issue.Nor, apparently, is it an environmental issue in Boulder – theone city on the Front Range, many here reckon, that would havetaken a cautious approach with mag chloride. “Actually, the city of Boulder is using more of it,” said BoulderDaily Camera environmental reporter Katie Human, “because it’sconsidered better than sodium chloride or sand, which contributesto our massive air-pollution problem.”
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