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Harry's gang: we use a lot of salt, and it stays

Thaw, freeze. Thaw, freeze. We’ve seen that cycle quite a bit this winter, especially as we close in on a record seasonal snowfall — will we beat the record of 113.4 inches? Stick around until May, and we’ll find out.

There’s a lot of slush, too, which is fun to splash through while driving during the day, but becomes as solid as railroad tracks when it freezes.

Humans have learned over the years how to beat the slippery ice. We use salt. A lot of it. Many places pour so much ice melt on their sidewalks, it acts as a simple burglar alarm — the crunch, crunch, crunch of a criminal can be heard for blocks, tipping off alert homeowners and businesses. Our roads are covered in salt, which leads to our cars being covered in salt, which is why we have plastic cars now instead of chrome and steel.

Lawyers may be part of the problem. There’s a perception that if someone slips on your icy sidewalk, you have to pay big. It’s not really true, but people still oversalt their sidewalks to be safe, and deicer on the highways helps reduce accidents.

Where does all that salt go, after it’s served its purpose?

The answer is: nowhere, really. It doesn’t biodegrade; it doesn’t break down; it doesn’t dissipate. It’s here forever. It may move off the sidewalks and roads, but once the snow melts and the brine works its way down the St. Louis River into Lake Superior, it’s really hard to get it out. And while salt is cheap at first, its long-term effects make it a real issue.

I asked Connie Fortin, a “low salt strategist” and a project manager at Bolton & Menk engineers. She’s been working on a plan to integrate low-salt design in future infrastructure, so we’ll need less chemicals to keep ice off things like parking lots, ramps, roads, bridges, roundabouts and, of course, highways. It’s really ingenious. For example, modern electronics can monitor roads and bridges, and tell us exactly how much salt is needed, rather than just spreading salt around from a truck. Using porous materials can help drain water before it freezes. And at Target Field in Minneapolis, the sidewalks are heated to keep ice from forming before big games on cold days. All these ideas reduce the amount of salt we use each winter.

Connie said that we import so much salt every year in Minnesota that we’ve created a problem with an unsustainable solution. She told me that the concentration of salt in lawns, farms, and waterways water must stay below 230 milligrams per liter. Higher than that, things start to die. And it’s nearly irreversible.

Connie said that our drinking water should have no more than 250 mg per liter; and while that concentration won’t kill you, it’s hard to drink because it tastes bad. My kids and I tried it — we put a teaspoon of salt in a 5-gallon bucket, and the kids complained that the water tasted bad. And removing salt from drinking water is expensive — you need to use either reverse osmosis, which is expensive, or evaporate the water and scrape the salt away. It’s smarter to reduce the amount of salt we allow into the water system in the first place. There are other chemicals we can use, but each has its own similar downside.

As a lawyer, I like holding people accountable for slip-and-fall cases, but Connie thinks we need to change that. She has been advocating for legislation that limits liability for people who plow highways and clear sidewalks and parking lots and such, so they lose the incentive to use so much salt. Right now, maintenance companies are afraid of being sued, so they oversalt to protect themselves, and because it works. But the damage to the environment is too great. So, maybe we should change the laws.

We’ve used a lot more salt and deicers this winter, because we’ve gotten a lot of snow. We need to figure out how to use less.

And as far as setting the snowfall record, I think we’ve had enough snow this year. I am quite comfortable coming in second. Or even third.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].

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