ROCKVILLE — Even though rock salt is a tried and true way to make roadways safer during the winter months, it can take a hefty toll on the environment and cars, which is why Montgomery County is working towards more sustainable salting processes.
On Nov. 6, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich announced that the county’s Department of Transportation would be implementing environmental controls to make snow removal more sustainable.
According to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, rock salt has been used on the nation’s roadways since the 1930s, and its use has only increased.
“By the winter of 1941-1942, a total of 5,000 tons of salt was spread on highways nationwide. Between 10 and 20 million tons of salt are used today,” the Cary Institute wrote.
“This massive increase in the use of road salt has caused an alarming increase in the salinity of our water. This is a cause for concern not only because of the negative impact salt has on the environment, but because of the impact it has on our drinking water.”
Heavy salting and snow removal equipment takes a real toll on roads as well, not to mention the salt can damage cars that drive on it all winter. This leads to rough roads and potholes that need to be repaired eventually.
Elrich discussed the new ideas to make snow removal more sustainable at this year’s annual Snow Summit held in Gaithersburg.
One of these new ideas is Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation (MCDOT) experimentation with rubber-tipped blades on snowplows.
The typical metal-tipped blades often damage the roadways if the county uses them before there are more than 3 inches of snow on the ground. So, using rubber tipped blades would allow MCDOT to begin plowing earlier, not damage the roadways and avoid the use of salt.
“Over the years, I have been impressed with MCDOT’s ability to get the job done when it comes to snow removal, and I know that MCDOT is as prepared as possible to be able to handle whatever Mother Nature may throw at us,” said Elrich.
“Every year, MCDOT takes a hard look at its snow removal operations to find ways to make improvements – and this year is no exception. I appreciate the work of the department to incorporate new environmental controls — both before and after storms — to make our operations more environmentally sustainable.”
According to the county, one of the challenges each winter is finding the right amount of rock salt to make sure that roadways are passable and safe but also will not damage environmental impacts like water quality.
With that balance in mind, MCDOT will be making changes like calibrating the equipment of subcontractors that help with the snow removal process to prevent unnecessary salt use, inspecting routes after a storm to remove excess salt and changing contracts with snowplow operators to include post-storm cleanup of salt spills.
According to the county, seven regional depots work together to clear snow along 220 plow routes, which encompasses 5,200 miles of county roads. MCDOT also has 175 pieces of equipment and 200 staff members dedicated to snow removal. If a particularly bad storm hits, MCDOT can bring in hundreds of contractors and extra equipment.
“MCDOT knows the importance to the public of getting snow removal right—and the importance of maintaining our basic infrastructure and keeping our roads and neighborhoods in great shape,” said Division Chief Richard Dorsey. “And it all starts with a motivated and dedicated staff. MCDOT is a great place to work and an organization that encourages and supports its employees. And, I am a prime example: I started with the County about 30 years ago as an equipment operator.”
MCDOT has already been working in recent years to reduce its use of salt during the winter months by using a salt brine. According to the county, the salt brine is a mixture of 80% water and only 20% salt; when used before a storm hits, it can reduce the amount of salt the county typically needs to use after a storm.
“I am confident that the improvements MCDOT is making this season to manage better salt application will reduce impacts on the environment,” said MCDOT Director Chris Conklin. “Salt management is just one part of effective and efficient snow removal that is absolutely essential to our county’s economy and the safety of our residents and businesses. We would not be able to provide this service without the dedication and commitment of the staff and contractors who work during winter weather events. When it snows, our snowplow operators, mechanics, and engineers work round-the-clock shifts until the roads are cleared.”
The State Highway Administration is also responsible for clearing state roads in the county.
Members of the public can find more information about which branch of the government is responsible for plowing specific streets on the Winter Storm Information Portal at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/snow/.