Road salt shortages fueling interest in corrosion-free alternatives

At least two things are true about road salt: On the plus side, it helps improve traction on asphalt surfaces, but on the minus it causes corrosion to the motor vehicles that drive on it.

With the temperatures getting colder and winter edging closer, several communities facing a shortage of road salt are seeking to come up with a solution quickly, one that will reduce slipperiness on the roadways without cars and trucks experiencing the ill effects of salt corrosion.

According to the Herald-Whig, highway and public works officials in Palmyra, Missouri are dealing with this very issue. Earlier this year, in preparation for what could be a snowy winter for Marion County, officials requested bids for road salt from area suppliers. However, none of their calls elicited responses, not even from the supplier usually heard from in previous years.

Marion County Commissioner Lyndon Bode told the newspaper that officials have had to don their thinking caps to come up with a Plan B.

"We've been kind of scrambling," Bode explained, unclear as to what they'll do to help commuters get to where they need to go when the snow starts flying. "We're not sure it will work out. It looks like there's some sort of shortage going on."

Northeast Ohio experiencing its own dilemma
The shortage of salt isn't a problem confined to the Show Me State, either. Officials in Northeast Ohio are encountering similar issues. According to WKYC, one of the region's lead suppliers of road salt experienced a leak in one of its Cleveland-based mines last year. This exacerbated the already insufficient amount of inventory, caused in part by extensive road salt use this past winter from all the inclement weather. It's also forced the company to raise prices.

Lynda Bauers, who sits on the board of directors for the Ohio Township Association, said the shortage is Buckeye State-wide.

"We're hearing all across the state of Ohio in different areas that bids are coming in two even three times higher than they were last year," Bauers told the NBC News affiliate. "So it's not unique to our area."

Bauers added that "they'll pay what we need to pay," but conceded that officials may be required to spend more than they have in recent years, depleting an already stretched budget.

"Road crews spread a mixture that is 20% beet juice and 80% liquid brine."

Several foods work as road salt substitutes
But other communities over the years, instead of paying more, have turned to road salt alternatives, which not only provide traction but don't include the adverse effects of sodium chloride, which can lead to environmental degradation due to runoff and premature corrosion of automobiles.

Since 2012, drivers spent an estimated $15.4 billion in rust repairs, largely caused by de-icers, according to a 2017 survey from AAA. For instance, in Auburn Hills, Michigan, road crews spread a mixture that is 20 percent beet juice and 80 percent liquid brine, according to USA Today. Another increasingly common yet unorthodox option is cheese brine. Primarily used in cheese distribution centers to soak certain varieties like mozzarella, cheese brine is proving effective on slippery streets in Wisconsin, CBC News reported. Even molasses is getting the job done in Washington State.

Moe Norby, technical support manager in Wisconsin's Polk County, told USA Today that while these alternatives don't completely eliminate the use of road salt, communities now don't need as much of it. This reduces costs as well as the wear and tear on cars caused by corrosion.

"We mix it with salt or salt sand," Norby stated. "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."

As for officials in Marion County, they aren't resorting to these options just yet, but they're keeping them in mind. Bode told the Herald-Whig that the highway department tries to start every season out with 250 tons of road salt. They have about half of that total presently, mostly what was left over from last winter.

"So we have a good supply to start with,"  Bode said. "It's not a major problem or anything yet, but we don't want to get caught mid-winter where we've used up our supply and we're needing some."