Does road salt hurt the environment?

Salt truck working to clear roads. (WISH Photo/Drew Blair)
Salt truck working to clear roads. (WISH Photo/Drew Blair)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The 44.1 inches of snow dumped on Central Indiana this winter means a lot of salt has been dumped on city streets. But what happens when that all thaws?

Salt on the roads is literally a lifesaver for Indiana drivers. The U.S. uses 22 million tons of road salt, but it doesn’t just disappear when the snow melts. Consider all of this salt eventually flowing into rivers and streams in Central Indiana.

Scientists say road salt can kill trees, but some researchers in Maine say the acidity of the water can get so high it mimics the effects of acid rain. Researchers at Indiana University in Bloomington did a study and found it’s toxic for some species.

“That species is susceptible to mortality due to the runoff of the road salt,” said Todd Royer, associate professor at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “It could include fish, but primarily we would be interested in insects and other invertebrates. They tend to be more sensitive to chloride than the fish. But of course, they are the food items for the fish so they are obviously related.”

One alternative is beet juice. It doesn’t melt the ice. Carbohydrates in the beet juice help prevent ice from bonding to the road to begin with.

Muncie uses beet juice, in part, because the combination of salt and sand can clog the waste water treatment plant, officials there told I-Team 8. Supporters say beet juice means less salt damaging roads, rivers and cars.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management confirms to I-Team 8 they don’t test waters for road salt runoff.

In Wisconsin, they’re spreading cheese on the roads — sort of. It’s the cheese brine, mixing the dairy waste with rock salt to cut costs and pollution. The cheese-coated streets bring concerns in the pilot program that started in December. Milwaukee officials are looking at whether a faint odor of cheese would bother residents and whether it would it attract rodents.

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