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Midwest cities eye options to costly road salt

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By USA Today
Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 6:24 p.m.

Local governments concerned about the environmental threat of runoff from salt widely used to clear wintry streets are turning to more nature-friendly substitutes.

Dealing with last week's blizzard across the Great Plains and Midwest, Anoka County, Minn., has been using sugar cane molasses. In Des Plaines, Ill., it's beet juice. In several places in — where else? — Wisconsin, it's cheese brine.

The alternatives don't eliminate the need for road salt but reduce the amount required.

That means savings for some road agencies.

When Moe Norby, technical support manager in Polk County, Wis., first got his county of about 44,000 people to use cheese brine a few years ago, he says it netted savings of $40,000 in the first year.

“We mix it with salt or salt sand,” Norby says. “Dry salt will bounce (when applied). This saves 30 percent of salt by eliminating the bounce factor, so we can use less salt to get the same effect.”

Perhaps best of all, the cheese brine, which the local F&A Dairy Products Co. uses to soak certain cheeses, is free, Norby says; the dairy previously disposed of the cheese brine in treatment plants.

Now Milwaukee wants in. Alderman Tony Zielinski recently introduced a proposal for the city to study using cheese brine.

“It's a win-win situation,” Zielinski says. “Obviously, in Wisconsin, we've got a lot of cheese brine.”

Tim Ridder, assistant director of public works and engineering for Des Plaines, says the city of 58,600 uses a mixture of beet juice and calcium chloride to wet streets before snow or ice strike.

“When snow hits pavement, it binds to the pavement,” Ridder says. “If you use salt, you're trying to break that bind. If you pre-wet, you use less salt, which is better for the environment.”

Auburn Hills, Mich., a Detroit suburb, uses a mixture of 20 percent beet juice and 80 percent liquid salt brine as an “anti-icing, pre-winter storm treatment,” according to director of public services Ron Melchert.

Anoka County uses a mixture of calcium chloride and sugar cane molasses, in addition to regular road salt, county engineer Doug Fischer says. The molasses helps the road salt stick and reduces calcium chloride's corrosive qualities, he says.

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