CLEVELAND — Ohio has the unique distinction of being a state that ranks near the top in terms of the amount of salt produced each year while also ranking near the top in the amount of salt consumed each year. With the Ohio Dept. of Transportation responsible for clearing and treating 43,000 lane miles across the state, the agency is always looking for efficiency and efficacy improvements to its $50-million-a-year snow removal program.
More than 1,500 feet below Cleveland and out into Lake Erie exists one of the largest salt mines in the world, producing the vast majority of the rock salt used to treat Ohio’s roadways and highways. Amounting to a multi-billion-dollar per year industry, demand for fresh rock salt is largely consistent year to year, given its relatively low cost and how effective it can be in snow removal programs.
Yet, year after year, local and state transportation leaders try to identify efficiency and efficacy improvements in order to use less of it, said Matt Bruning, the spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Transportation.
“We’ve been able to significantly reduce [how much salt ODOT uses] over the years — as our equipment gets better, we’re a little more calibrated with our trucks. We’re more precise so we’re able to put that salt right where we want it: On the roadway,” Bruning said. “Our goal is to only use the amount of material we need to get the job done — not more, not less.”
Through advancements in technology, Bruning said the agency’s fleet of snow plows are significantly more precise in where the salt is placed and how much. Additionally, over the past decade, ODOT has implemented, with greater frequency, the use of liquid de-icers, including saltwater mixes like brines. More exotic solutions, including mixtures infused with beet juice have also been used for certain applications. The liquid de-icers allow the process of treating the road to begin sooner as opposed to traditional rock salt. The liquid solutions are also easier to apply to the driving surface.
“We want that salt and that material to be in the driving lane where drivers are driving. That’s where it is most effective,” Bruning said. “With liquid de-icer and the liquid brine that we make, we’re able to keep it there without it bouncing off the side of the shoulder or off the road completely. That allows us to be more efficient.”
The liquid applications, which can consist of roughly 25% salt and 75% water, can also help limit — to an extent — the potential impact on the environment. In addition to causing billions of dollars in corrosion damage to cars, bridges and roadways annually. Rock salt can also negatively impact water quality, harm ecosystems and wildlife. However, other alternatives that have been introduced in recent years also come with environmental caveats like beet juice, which has been linked to algal blooms. Other alternatives are significantly more expensive.
“Our men and women in ODOT live and work here just like everybody watching this does. This is our home, too. We want to take care of it. We certainly balance the need to make sure that our roads are safe for drivers with the need to make sure the environment is safe as well,” Bruning said. “That’s why we target our usage to the roadway and try to use the least amount of material to get the job done but still get the job done. It’s a balance, it’s a tightrope that we walk. But I would like to think that we do a pretty good job at it.”