The de-icer that tames Western roads

Dumping magnesium chloride on winter roads keeps the traffic moving — but how safe is the stuff?

  • Jungle Fuhrman works as a mechanic in Eagle, Colorado, the new Rust Belt of the West

    Allen Best
  • Mag chloride by any other name

    Colorado Department of Transportation
  • This sign post is corroding due to repeated applications of the de-icer magnesium chloride. Location: Speer Boulevard, near Arapaho Street, in Denver, Colorado.

 


INTERSTATE 70, COLORADO — It’s a catch-22 of winter driving: To allow faster and safer travel, transportation officials in the 1990s began splashing a salt-based de-icer called magnesium chloride on highways before and during snowstorms. It lowers the freezing point by about 10 degrees, making mountain highways less hazardous, proponents say.

But the grayish, gooey substance must be washed immediately from cars and trucks, including the undercarriages, to prevent corrosion of electrical wires, nuts, brake shoes and even ball joints. "If the ball joint goes, you have no control; the car goes wherever it wants to go," says Gary Bergman, the owner of Meadow Creek Tire in Frisco, Colo. "When that happens, you can kiss your rear end goodbye."

In other words, "mag chloride" makes roads safer, but it makes vehicles using them less safe. And although drivers may travel faster, they spend extra time and money washing their cars. Other consequences may not become evident for decades — and some critics say they could include contamination of roadside streams, weakening of concrete bridges, negative effects on wildlife and perhaps even cancer in humans.

Transportation officials think such fears are overwrought. Mag chloride is more effective than other road salts and has reduced accident rates, kept mountain highways open, and caused only minimal damage to the environment and to vehicles. "We have never said it was a perfect product," says Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). "Each product will have its downside, but we think this product achieves the best balance."

Drink it up!

Colorado is at the forefront of magnesium chloride use in the West. Like most Western states, it long shunned salt, instead using sand for traction. Pitted and cracked windshields from flying rocks were the cost of driving in snow country.

But when sand is ground up by traffic, it becomes dust that hangs in the air — a major component in Denver’s infamous brown cloud. Sand pollution also turned creeks along Interstate 70 into beaches, and aquatic life suffocated under decades and tons of migrating sand pebbles.

So, in 1996, the state began slopping mag chloride on I-70, the major artery across the Colorado Rockies. The highway, which was closed 46 times the previous year, remained open almost continuously, in part due to the mag chloride. Use of the de-icer, which comes from factories along Utah’s Great Salt Lake, has now been expanded to secondary highways in Colorado; application has increased 1,400 percent in the last eight years, to 10.62 million gallons.

Within a few years of its introduction, however, several mountain communities, including Aspen, Basalt and Summit County, banned mag chloride, variously citing safety, health and environmental concerns. According to Gary Lindstrom, Summit County commissioner, "The community as a whole is very upset that all of the trees are dead along the roads. CDOT claims that mag (chloride) does not kill trees, but they can’t explain what does."

CDOT also disputes claims that the chemical could have negative effects on aquatic life. A study by Colorado State University Professor William Lewis found that magnesium chloride applied to roads is rapidly diluted, causing insignificant effects. In a second study, Lewis absolved the de-icer of risks to human health. At a legislative hearing, CDOT executive director Tom Norton sipped a beaker of the lemonade-looking substance, diluted with water to a ratio of one part per 500, the same level as in streams adjacent to roads.

But Norton’s public whistle-wetting missed the point, says Lee Cassin, Aspen’s municipal director of environmental safety. Mag chloride itself may not harm streams or people, but it could be dangerous in combination with other elements. We just don’t know, she says. To be safe, Cassin advocates alternatives — using sand, but sweeping it more often, driving more slowly, and using other de-icers.

"Rust Belt of the West"

The argument over magnesium chloride is being waged across the West. Last year, citizens in Kalispell, Whitefish, and West Glacier, Mont., appealed to the Flathead County commissioners to discontinue its use. The speakers — mechanics, loggers and truckers among them — testified to the damage they had seen and expressed worries about the de-icer’s effects on wildlife. "I hate the stuff," said Bill Anders, a carpenter in Kalispell. "I hate it with a passion."

If magnesium chloride is not the miracle some once thought, Montana transportation officials still say it’s the best answer available for the money, and that it achieves what the average person cares most about, which is driving safety. But critics in Montana, like those in Colorado, say the real question is what price we’re willing to pay for our get-anywhere-fast transportation imperative.

"Jungle" Fuhrman, a mechanic in Eagle, Colo., has seen bolts that never broke before snap as a result of mag chloride-caused corrosion. He calls I-70 the new "Rust Belt of the West." But that isn’t what eats at him the most about mag chloride: "How important is it that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we be able to drive across the state on I-70?" he asks. "We’re in too much of a hurry. Why can’t we stand back and watch a snowstorm once in awhile?"

The author writes from Arvada, Colorado.

Colorado Department of Transportation www.dot.state.co.us/

CDOT research reports www.dot.state.co.us/publications/ResearchReports.htm#Mag.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • AMAZING PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    If you're an amazing Program or Education Manager looking for an exciting and fulfilling position with an organization that makes a difference in the community,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • SOCIETY FOR WILDERNESS STEWARDSHIP BOARD MEMBER
    Join the SWS board and help us broaden, diversify, and engage the wilderness community.
  • NEW MEXICO BIRDER'S PARADISE.
    Fully furnished 2B/2B home near Bosque del Apache NWR, great for nature lovers.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.