Magnesium chloride debate to heat up Glenwood
Opinions about magnesium chloride are about as varied as the snowflakes it melts. Some tout it as the best thing to come along in years, while others complain it gnaws away at their cars and leaves a slimy mess in its wake.
The debate will move to a more formal local forum, as the Glenwood Springs City Council is poised to tackle the question of whether to stop using the controversial chemical.
The city of Aspen street department stopped using mag chloride four years ago when local environmental officials opined the chemical damages roadside plant life and poses health risks to people. Recently, the city decided against using any chemical deicers whatsoever.
Magnesium chloride, also called “mag chloride” and sometimes called “that sticky stuff that leaves a veil of scum on my car,” is a liquid street de-icer that’s been used in Colorado for the last several years. State and local transportation officials insist its combination of affordability and effectiveness make it the best alternative they have.
“We are for it for a number of reasons,” Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said.
Stegman cited “extensive studies” that show mag chloride is one of the best products on the market in terms of preserving good air quality, as opposed to the dust caused by using sand and cinders. She also said there are no known negative effects on aquatic life.
Also, she said the product is no more corrosive than salt to aluminum and stainless steel and is 70 percent or less corrosive than salt to “mild steel.”
“Our corrosion studies aren’t complete, but we did change our specifications,” she said. “Now we will be assured that it is not any more corrosive than sodium chloride.”
Admitted drawbacks with the product are that it loses effectiveness as temperatures dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and that it’s sticky. But Stegman says that in general, its positive attributes far outweigh any negatives.
“We have a responsibility to provide safe highways, and closures on I-70 have been reduced by more than half,” due to mag chloride, she said.
“It’s a tradeoff. Would you rather have film on your windshield or a rock cracking your windshield?” due to cinders. “It’s not a perfect product, but we haven’t found one that is.”
Glenwood Springs street supervisor Rick Turner said that while the water-based chemical does lose effectiveness in extreme cold, it reactivates once temperatures warm back up.
“The thing about it is the liquid will stay on the pavement,” Turner said.
Turner, like those at CDOT, is in favor of keeping mag chloride in his ice-fighting arsenal.
“I like the mag chloride because I have to make sure people get safely where they’re going. It’s a good tool,” he said.
Other benefits of the chemical include less cleanup and cost, he said. During an average snowstorm, the city will use about 550 gallons of mag chloride on its roads. At 29 cents a gallon, that comes to about $160 per storm.
And on the argument that it eats away at vehicles, Turner had a poignant rejoinder: “A car is replaceable, a human life is not.”
If City Council does decide to stop using the chemical, however, Turner said he’d deal with it.
“Whatever the City Council wants to do, we’ll do it,” Turner said.
Glenwood Springs Mayor Don Vanderhoof said he sees the merits of mag chloride, but at this point he thinks it might be a good idea to stop using it on city streets.
“I see the value of it keeping the roads clean, but it appears that the down side of it is more important than that. What we’ve got to realize is if we don’t use mag chloride, we have to use sand or salt and they all have a down side,” he said.
“I would like to see us get rid of it.”
The mayor pointed to corrosion problems with city police cars and Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses, and complaints by truckers who say it’s hard to get the chemical off their rigs.
“There’s problems with what it does to vehicles,” he said.
Colorado State Patrol Capt. Scott Friend is in favor of continuing the use of mag chloride.
“I think it has a lot of uses and I think it’s helped the roads tremendously,” he said. “I don’t have a scientific study to show how many accidents it’s prevented, but I do know that when they use it, and use it properly, it sure helps the roads out there.”
There are alternatives, but each one has its own drawbacks. Some alternatives include Ice Slicer, a granular ice melter that costs $59 per ton; Caliber M-1000, a 68-percent concentration of mag chloride that costs 68 cents per gallon; and NC 3000 chloride, which is made with all corn byproducts. While this could be the best alternative, the price is prohibitive at $3.25 a gallon.
“Right now, until we find a better product, this is working for us,” Stegman said.
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