Environmental Question

I am honestly curious here.  Apparently, Seattle does not use salt to melt ice on roadways because they believe " it's not a healthy addition to Puget Sound."  I could understand if the salt was all washing into a trout stream or perhaps a reservoir, but isn't Puget Sound part of the ocean, which has, um, salt water?  Is it a different kind of salt  (e.g. calcium chloride vs. sodium chloride) that causes the problem?  Or is this another typical "don't understand the math of concentration" story?  Or perhaps are they using environmental concerns as cover for lack of preparation?

  • DaveK

    Not being a native of the Seattle area, I don't know this for sure, but I believe that much of the Puget Sound is fresh (or nearly fresh) water, even though it is tidally influenced. A big dose of salt into the system as part of winter runoff could have an unhealthy impact on such a system.

    Then there is the indirect cost of using salt... greatly accelerated corrosion rates. This takes a hefty toll on infrastructure and property. Other deicers may not work quite as well, but are not nearly as harmful. And when you only need to use deicers infrequently, and then usually in conditions where the less aggressive ones work adequately, you may just decide that salt is not the best agent to use.

  • EvilRedScandi

    I was reading somewhere about how during the first major snow they had something like 400 accidents in two days. I've spent enough time in Seattle to fear driving there in even the most hospitable climate. My theory is that 50% of the people behind the wheel of a vehicle there have no idea they're driving a car. Another 25% have no idea they're actually in a car. Basically, all of the jokes we tell about Los Angeles drivers (eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, putting on makeup), increased by an order of magnitude, minus using handguns to signal lane changes (I'm pretty sure that part would actually help).

    It's too bad really, because in many respects Seattle is a great city.

  • bryan

    As a native of the Seattle area i can tell you for sure that the puget sound is nothing close to fresh. It is as salty as sea water can be. All the surrounding areas use salt so I'm not sure what seattle abstaining is supposed to help.
    Now that i live in a region that actually gets significant snowfall and knows how to properly prepare, I am convinced that their crying conservation on this one was just to cover their lack of preparedness.

  • Jody

    Putting numbers on it:

    The Baltic Sea ranges in salinity from about 5 to 15 o/oo. The salinity of the Black Sea is less than 20 o/oo. Water of the Puget Sound in the Tacoma, Wash., area ranges in salt content from 21 to about 27 o/oo.

    ...

    the salinity of the ocean water off Miami Beach, Fla., varies from about 34.8 o/oo in October to 36.4 o/oo in May and June, while diagonally across the country, off the coast of Astoria, Oregon, the salinity of sea water varies from 0.3 o/oo in April and May to 2.6 o/oo in October. The water off the coast of Miami Beach has a high salt content because it is undiluted sea water. Off the coast of Astoria, however, the sea water is less saline because it is mixed with the fresh water of the mighty Columbia.
    ...
    The salt content of the open oceans, free from land influences, is rarely less than 33 o/oo and seldom more than 38 o/oo. Throughout the world, the salinity of sea water averages about 35 o/oo.

    So the Puget Sound is less salty than normal, but far from fresh. In fact, The Puget Sound (24 o/oo) is much closer to average salt water (35 o/oo) than to fresh water (1.5 o/oo).

  • mishu

    I reckon they have concerns runoff into Lake Washington as well.

  • mishu

    I reckon they have concerns about runoff into Lake Washington as well.

  • http://politicalcalculations.blogspot.com/ Ironman

    Jim Miller is the go-to source here.

    But, the good news is that Seattle's mayor has given himself a "B" for his "response" to the snow. Why not an A? Well, some folks haven't seen city trash pickup, of any kind, since December 12.

  • bryan

    I tried to do a little research, everything about the negative effects of road salt is in regards to small streams or plants near roadways, and this was in places like wisconsin where it is used through out the winter season. There is no way that seattle could use anywhere near the amount of salt necessary to effect a body of water the size of lake washington in a couple of weeks. The comments about the puget sound would have to be a joke.

    maybe im missing something, but my quick figuring says that it would something like 8 billion pounds of salt to add one gram/liter (approx 1 part per thousand) to lake washington?

    http://blog.seattletimes.nwsource.com/northwestvoices/2008/12/24/no_salt_for_seattle.html

  • bryan

    I tried to do a little research, everything about the negative effects of road salt is in regards to small streams or plants near roadways, and this was in places like wisconsin where it is used through out the winter season. There is no way that seattle could use anywhere near the amount of salt necessary to effect a body of water the size of lake washington in a couple of weeks. The comments about the puget sound would have to be a joke.

    maybe im missing something, but my quick figuring says that it would something like 8 billion pounds of salt to add one gram/liter (approx 1 part per thousand) to lake washington?

  • http://neubranderinc.com/blog/ Nobrainer

    Then there is the indirect cost of using salt… greatly accelerated corrosion rates. This takes a hefty toll on infrastructure and property.

    This is true, as I and the rusted frame on my last car can attest. However, the damage caused by salt to infrastructure and property must be weighed against the damage that will be caused by uncleared roadways. People driving around in chains because of uncleared roadways isn't the most benign solution, but it is the alternative.

  • EconGrad

    Having parents that live in the hills east of Seattle, but still in King County, I have seen a lot of incredulous regulations regarding land use. They won't allow building on land or clearing land if it might, even only during a major rainstorm, result in runoff to a salmon stream. A salmon stream does not mean a stream that hosts salmon, but a stream that leads to a water source that might have salmon in it. Basically, if the stream runs to Lake Washington or the Puget Sound, it is a salmon stream. King County, which is controlled by commissioners from the city of Seattle, has gone to extreme measures to try and return land to nature. Here is a link to their website about these recent additions to the 'critical areas ordinance.'
    http://www.kingcounty.gov/property/permits/codes/CAO.aspx

  • the other coyote

    Chains will tear the heck out of asphalt. Dumb idea to have people drive with chains (or, I'm admitting my age here, studded snow tires). The zillions they'll spend repaving the potholes caused by (1) continuous freeze and thaw, due to moisture remaining on the roads and (2) chains will more than offset the itty bitty bit of salt used on the roads.

    When auto insurers refuse to insure Seattle zip codes, do you think the loopy denizens will get a clue?

    OT, a coyote trotted across the front yard at lunch time. It appeared to be a young female, smallish, thinish. Not sure what she was up to other than looking for neighborhood cats for lunch. The local coyote population's habitat has been reduced in the year by about 150 - 200 acres, thanks to a new shopping center and subdivision. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of them, and their shyness has worn off. Not sure if it's good or bad that they don't seem to have a taste for garbage. Good in that I'm not picking it up, bad in that they are more interested in the neighborhood barn cats.

  • http://bluntobject.wordpress.com/ bluntobject

    I grew up in Edmonton -- pretty much smack in the middle of Alberta -- and the city used only sand (no salt) on its roads during the winter. (They didn't plow sidestreets either, at least not regularly.) After the first couple of days of winter snowfall, no-one had insurmountable problems getting around. Seems to me that the problem of drivers who don't know how to deal with snow is bigger than the problem of sand vs. salt. (Vancouver has the same issue with its drivers.)

  • Hoss

    I sent our question or a good friend that works for the Washington State Dept of Transportation. She had quite a bit to say on the matter:

    That's a good question and one that has been debated around here a lot lately. Some say that since we don't get that much snow we should use salt in these rare occasions. Some argue that we are okay with out it. Some argue that the sand that SDOT (Seattle Dept. of Transportation) uses is just as bad or worse for the environment. However, I would remind people that it is much easier to store sand than salt because of the moisture issues. Personally I think the city's response to the snow has been very poor and was outraged when the mayor gave the city's response a B. Especially in contrast to the mayor of Portland's response when the cities are having similar problems. Portland's response was we know that we don't have adequate snow fighting tools for the rare storms like we just had but funding is an issue and we are doing the best with what we have. Where as Seattle's response is we did pretty good. It's infuriating. Here are a few articles that might give you some insight. There was another one in the Times that I thought was pretty good but I can't find it right now. I'll look tonight.

    Seattle refuses to use salt; roads "snow packed" by design: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2008551284_snowcleanup23m.html
    When it's time to clear roadways, Seattle holds the salt: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/393497_roads24.html
    My favorite Seattle Times columnist's take on the snow: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/ronjudd/2008558465_trailmix25.html

    Okay so here's the other article I couldn't find this afternoon

    Sand on roads worse than salt, scientists say
    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2008554976_roads24m.html

    From what I understand the city hasn't used salt on its roads since the late 90s when some species of salmon that primarily lives in the Sound was placed on the endangered species list.

    My personal response to the whole thing is I don't care how you do it just make the roads clear at least those that the city has designated primary and secondary arterials. Working in transportation I have some sympathy for all the work it takes to keep our roads clear. It's not an easy job by any means. We had crews working around the clock for nearly 2 weeks to keep the state highways and interstates clear. However, the city's response to the snow has been abysmal and for the mayor to give the city's response a "B" was incredible. When the main arterials that the city has designated as "critical" aren't clear and people haven't had garbage service in over a week you don't get a "B" no way.

    To be honest I'm not sure who's response is worse SDOT or King County Metro's (the main transit provider in Seattle). Metro's communication was very very poor. I understand that service can't be maintained in adverse weather but my neighborhood had no service for over a week. They tell people to check their website but the website isn't up to date. Drivers don't follow the listed re-routes and you are lucky if a bus isn't too full and actually stops to pick you up. The first Thursday of the storm they cancelled a bunch of service in the middle of the day and left people stranded all over town. Plus this week they decide to run on a mishmash of partial holiday, holiday and regular schedules without communicating this to the public. So a number of people waited at stops for buses that were never going to come because their bus wasn't actually running today. AWESOME! I think their behavior during this storm has probably given them a bigger black eye than they've ever had before.

  • shmarollynn

    I live in the residential neighborhood just north of downtown Seattle, and everything I have heard from my neighbors and co-workers since last week's snowy debacle indicates that Mayor Nickels may just lost his re-election in 2009. It boggles my mind that the very same mayor who has encouraged us to 'green up' and get rid of our SUVs or ride mass transit made it possible for only four/all-wheel drive vehicles to get around on the snow-packed streets. The fact that mass transit pretty much imploded while we were snowed under makes it all the more ironic. The people who chained up only made the situation worse; the chains tore up the snowpack on the roads, creating huge potholes in the ice and snow that would send you sliding if you hit them too hard. I don't even want to think about all of the damage they caused to the pavement once they wore all the way through the ice.

    The claim the City made that all main arterials were being cleared was absolutely laughable. Mercer Street, which is one of the main roads to I-5 from the north end of downtown, was an icy mess riddled with the aforementioned potholes. None of the arterials through my neighborhood saw a plow, and the one and only plow I saw throughout the entire week was doing next to nothing to clear the road it was on. Using salt for one week wouldn't have had any impact on the Sound at all (um, saltwater? Yes.) and car owners' fears that the same amount of salt would damage their cars was just preposterous. Mayor Nickels held a press conference today for the first time since Christmas Eve (when he gave the City's response a 'B') and said that in the future, Seattle will use salt to clear roads when there is more than 4 inches of accumulation. Too little, too late, I think.

    I'm originally from Colorado, so I feel pretty comfortable driving in snowy/icy conditions. However, I'm scared to death to drive in such conditions here in Seattle, for two reasons:

    a) This city is made up of many steep hills (second in the country only to San Francisco, or so I've heard) and it's just plain stupid to try and drive down an icy hill; and

    b) Seattle drivers think that all you have to do is slap some chains or studded tires on, and you're good to drive as fast/crazily as you do in normal conditions. If they start to lose control of their vehicle, they either slam on the brakes or gun it. Scares the snot out of me.