Bill takes aim at controversial salt brine use on roads

VTrans snowplow Route 4
The view from one of the state’s plow trucks. File photo by Andrew Nemethy/VTDigger
Legislators introduced a bill last week to ban salt brine from being applied on Vermont’s public roads.

The state’s Transportation Agency currently sprays roads with a salt solution that melts snow, but critics say the brine has particularly corrosive effects on vehicles.

“My understanding, from talking to some mechanics … is that (salt brine) adheres to, and sticks, to vehicles more than just what actual salt does that’s applied,” said one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell.

He said he has heard from mechanics that salt brine is especially bad for mufflers and brake lines.

But officials at the Vermont Department of Transportation say the brine is simply salt and water.

Workers generally make salt brine by combining water with the same salt that is applied to roads dry at other times, said Erik Filkorn, a public outreach administrator at the agency.

Under extreme cold, they sometimes add a substance that makes the solution melt snow and ice at temperatures below where sodium chloride is effective, said the agency’s head of operations, Scott Rogers.

This additive is not corrosive and in fact contains corrosion inhibitors, Rogers said.

Higley and three other lawmakers joined the lead sponsor, Rep. Clement Bissonnette, D-Winooski, in proposing the ban.

H.82 takes up only five sentences. One specifies that the bill pertains only to liquid salt solutions. The salt is most often sodium chloride, it says, but can be calcium chloride or magnesium chloride.

“The (Vermont Agency of Transportation), municipalities, and all other persons shall not use salt brine on any highway, or on any private or public road used by motor vehicles, in Vermont,” reads the third sentence.

Violations of the ban would be enforced as unpermitted water pollution. The ban would take effect at the beginning of July.

The bill would prohibit one of the Transportation Agency’s most-used methods of clearing roads in winter, said Filkorn.

“Salt and brine are an essential part of what we do to fight snow and ice,” he said. Officials say brine allows workers to use less sand and salt while making roads safe.

Filkorn said he couldn’t immediately predict what the AOT might do if the bill were to pass.

According to the agency’s snow and ice control plan, the salt brine it uses consists of a 23 percent solution of salt in water. It is used primarily when road surface temperatures are above 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

The plan stipulates that the agency must add a 3 percent solution of corrosion inhibitors to salt brine.

The agency applied more than 2.27 million gallons of salt brine on Vermont roads during the winter of 2014-2015, according to the AOT’s 2016 fact book and annual report. The agency spread 132,271 tons of salt during the same period and more than 9,600 tons of sand. These treatments were spread over 6,522 lane-miles of road surface.

Salt brine is widely suspected of worsening corrosion of vehicles, although the state says that has not been shown.

An accident in Barre in 2014 illustrated the risks that rusted auto components can pose if not repaired. Investigators said unrepaired corrosion on a car built in the early 1990s contributed to the death of a woman in a crash on a steep hill. The car’s brake lines burst just before or during the accident, investigators said.

The humid climate of Northeast states seems to be hard on automobiles, even without the salt, said Mason Kuhn, head technician at Montpelier’s State Street Gulf.

“Any cars from the Northeast — New York, Maine, New Hampshire — are terrible to work on” because the region’s humidity corrodes their parts, Kuhn said.

The salt only exacerbates this effect, he said.

“Cars are affected by the salt here, in particular, far more than other places,” Kuhn said. “We live in a state that’s really moist, and we use a lot of salt.”

But he wasn’t sure a salt brine ban would make a difference. If the state has to substitute dry salt, that will convert to salt brine when it melts the frozen water and dissolves into it, he said. In the winter, Kuhn said, meltwater that remains on roads is nothing other than salt brine.

Auto owners can combat the effects of road salt by simply washing their vehicles, particularly the undercarriage, Kuhn said.

A more permanent solution is undercoating, he said. That is a protective film sprayed onto the bottom of an automobile that shields the chassis and components from corrosion.

“Regardless of where you get it done, if someone does a half-decent job (of undercoating) it’ll definitely extend the life of your car,” Kuhn said.

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  • Salt brine, however generated, massively corrodes bridges as well as autos. How to avoid? One logical solution is to construct covered bridges over the roadways. These would be faux-bridges; you keep the existing steel undercarriage and add a wood structure and facade top-side, so it looks Vermonty and functionally protects the bridge deck.

    As for the road itself, my invention is a PT-6 jet engine bolted down into a straddle lumber carrier. You run that jet at a touch over idle and direct the exhaust through a downward fan onto the road surface, and it blows the ice off in sheets. You end up with a nice dry road, no salt, and it uses surprisingly little diesel. The action is more from the combination of hot air and turbulence than simply heat; you are not melting the ice as much as getting the air underneath it and blasting it off. Works like a charm!

  • Moshe Braner

    And what are the mysterious “corrosion inhibitors”?

  • David Wright

    The day after a recent trip on US 4 from Rutland to WRJ and two days after driving on I 89, I hosed off the crud on the outside of the car and was surprised that the salt didn’t just rinse off like it usually does. I had to use a brush to loosen what seemed like an oily film Has anyone else noticed this? The film was dark while the usual salt film is white.

    • Moshe Braner

      Maybe that was the mysterious “corrosion inhibitors”?

  • Bill Cheney

    H.82 ……but can be calcium chloride. Calcium chloride is far more crossive to metals than sodium chloride.
    Vehicle parts today don’t have the metallurgical quality that parts 20 years a go used to have. Some of the metals used today in vehicles has been recycled 3 , 4, and 5 times and each recycling process strips the quality and leaves more impurities.

    • Darin Gillies

      that is completely false, steel and aluminum today is far more refined and higher quality than even 10 years ago. On top of that almost all auto makers use galvanized metal to help prevent corrosion.

  • Alan Shashok

    I have a 2008 Honda Fit, purchased new. Driven back and forth to Burlington daily for work and all around the northeast in all kinds of weather and road conditions. Not a spot of rust, did replace the exhaust last year. Just sayin’

  • Elizabeth Templeton
  • Michelle Guenard

    I had to replace my corroded brakes within, what I thought, was the warranty period. I was told that the parts manufacturers have withdrawn the warranties on brakes in Vermont because of the corrosive salt we use. Maybe we should consider solutions being used in nearby jurisdictions. In Quebec, they’re using beet juice to reduce the amount of salt used on the roads.

  • Welcome to Trumpworld….where the elected officials automatically
    know more than experts who have spent their whole education and experience
    learning get about problems and solutions. We are all Rick Perry’s now.

  • scott meyer

    What I have understood the salt they used to use was calcium chlorite in solid form now they use magnesium chlorite in liquid form. The old way it was a solid and would bounce off the road and not typically get into and stick to our autos. The liquid form magnesium chlorite gets to stay on the road but also sprays into all those places that are harder to clean for our vehicles. The chemistry is also different between the two when it comes to the corrosiveness on the metal of the auto. I thought their was also an additive to make it sticky. Law makers should seek out the chemical composition of the old product and the new product. Listen to the mechanics please as they are the ones who are seeing the damage.

  • edward letourneau

    I think there is more corrosion. I have a 2012 vehicle with 14,000 miles on it. 6000 of those miles were in the south with no salt. I’ve found grade 10.9 fasteners rusted together and impossible to remove without breaking with just 3/8 hand tools. So something is surely different in the past few years.

  • Matt Davis

    The only reason we use as much salt on roadways as we do is due to the salt lobby. The suggestion that this is the only way to provide safe roads in winter is absurd. Sand is perfectly effective, and with good snow tires a packed snow roadway is totally safe to drive on. I have traveled and driven in winter conditions in regions of the US and Canada where they do not employ salt at all and the roads are equally as safe as they are in VT where salt is used.