Every winter the roads leading into Whistler, including the highway from Duffey Lake to Horseshoe Bay, are peppered with salt — up to a staggering 10,000 tonnes of the crystal, depending on the season.
The lion's share is spread on the all-important tourist track — the Sea to Sky Highway — but the resort municipality spreads its share too — roughly 400 tonnes annually.
Salt is the go-to, and the cheapest ingredient, for keeping the Sea to Sky's roads and walkways, its parking lots and side streets, clear of snow and ice, making them safe for travel.
But once it works its melting magic, that 10,000 tonnes of salt dissolves into chloride and sodium ions, ultimately sliding and running off into streams and lakes, working its way into soil, damaging infrastructure along the way and putting plants, animals and the aquatic environment at risk.
In 2001, the concerns around the use of road salts reached a head: Environment Canada included road salts and other de-icers in its second Priority Assessment List of potential toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
Three years later, the government developed a voluntary code of practice in an effort to help municipalities and provinces better manage the use of salt.
In the meantime, on any given winter, up to 5 million tonnes of salt goes into the Canadian environment, depending on the severity of the season.
Salt, it seems, isn't going anywhere any time soon... in more ways than one.
KEEPING SEA TO SKY SAFE — TOP PRIORITY
The No. 1 priority for road contractors like Mainroad (maintaining the highway from Function Junction to Duffey Lake) and Miller Capilano (maintaining the highway from Horseshoe Bay to Function Junction) is keeping the roads safe for the travelling public.
There's a lot of pressure, now more than ever in this instant age of social media, to keep the roads clear.
"The travelling public has to be safe no matter what," agrees Darren Ell, general manager with Mainroad.
There's no doubt that salt is an effective tool for that purpose. And it's cheap.
"For the best bang for your buck, salt in the best product," he adds.
Expectations for the iconic highway leading to Whistler with its thousands of out of country tourists and its local traffic are high.
The travelling public has come to expect a certain level of service on the highway, one that will allow for summertime speeds and driving patterns — black tarmac 365 days of the year.
"Everyone wants a bare, wet road," explains Tom Cloutier with Miller Capilano. "The people that travel our highway want it black."
The pressing need for winter tires then becomes less of an issue; the responsibility for safe winter driving also gets diluted.
If people were driving to winter conditions, added Cloutier, the road maintenance crews would not be putting down as much salt.
"They don't want compact snow and ice on the road at all," he added.
Lee Gould of the Smart About Salt non-profit organization based in Ontario, advocating for improved winter salting practices, questioned if that's reasonable.
It too maintains safety is the top priority.
"Safety is, without a doubt, our first objective," he said.
But our winter road expectations may be out of whack.
"This is Canada," added Gould.
Winters are long and cold and icy and oftentimes unrelenting.
When it comes to walkways and pathways, municipalities may err on the side of caution, spreading more salt to mitigate risk.
Whistler, for example, is no stranger to winter lawsuits.
It's cheaper, said Gould, to settle so-called slip-and-fall claims out of court than get to the root of some accidents.
The go-to tool remains salt.
USING SALT EFFECTIVELY
So comes the task of using salt efficiently and effectively as per Canadian best practices.
There are a variety of ways to do that.
Local road crews use a mixture of salt and sand — one-part salt to 12 parts sand — for abrasion and traction.
They also use salt brine — a diluted mixture of salt and water.
"We make that ourselves," said Cloutier. "What we find is we get a better distribution of salt."
It becomes, however, a delicate dance of temperatures and conditions and forecasts.
Salt brine, though it stays in the pores of the road for a couple of days, loses its effectiveness in rain or fog. The brine, however, allows for a better distribution of the salt, preventing it from getting bounced directly onto the shoulder.
Calcium chloride is also used because it's highly soluble. According to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) communications department, calcium chloride is used to pre-wet the materials coming out of the trucks, making the sand stick to the road and activating the salt to start melting ice.
It's also used to pre-wet the roads before a storm, creating a film between the asphalt and the snow which makes it easier to plow. Calcium chloride also reduces the effects of black ice.
An email from the RMOW communications department further stated:
"The RMOW is aware of the impacts of salt but that all things considered we have determined that salt is the most cost effective and overall most appropriate solution for road and walkway safety at this time."
With the RMOW spreading more than 700 tonnes on any given winter, Whistler's salt budget is more than $80,000 per year — $117.50/tonne including shipping.
Added Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden: "We're always interested in reducing the amount of salt that we use."
Just last year, for example, the municipality added a new biofiltration pond behind the Nesters transfer station. Whistler now has three of these "artificial wetlands," which filter out chemicals and sediments much like natural wetlands. There is another across from Montebello estates and a third on Blackcomb Way, across from Lot 5.
Salt doesn't appear to be an ongoing problem. In response to further questions from Pique, the municipal communications department responded via email:
"The water quality in the streams to which the biofiltration ponds outflow into do not show a significant impact from sodium (salt). We have also completed spot checks on Chloride and levels have not shown significant impact. Sodium (salt) levels in the soil of the streams downstream of biofiltration ponds are within regulatory limits."
There were no year-over-year Whistler figures available.
Just last month, a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America suggested that "salinization associated with increasing suburban and urbanization deserves attention as one of the most significant threats to the integrity of freshwater ecosystems in the northeastern United States."
Many lakes and rivers in that area may become toxic to freshwater life if nothing changes.
Still, reducing salt use remains the cornerstone of the 2004 federal Code of Practice for the Environmental Management of Road Salts.
"We are asked to use salt efficiently," said Ell at Mainroad. "From an environmental standpoint, we're watching it very closely."
ARE VEGETABLES THE ANSWER?
When the highway starts getting colder than -7 C in the Cascade Mountains, the local highway contractor turns to beet juice, blending it with salt brine. Salt itself stops working in temperatures that plummet beyond -7. Beet juice changes that.
"It allows the salt to start working at colder temperatures," said Gary Zecchel, CEO of VSA Highway Maintenance, which maintains the Coquihalla, which like the Sea to Sky is one of B.C.'s more challenging highways.
It's called Beet 55, a derivative of sugar, and it's used as an anti-icer.
"It's a proactive measure to maintain traction on our road surfaces," he added.
VSA also has the Canadian distribution rights for Beet 55 in Western Canada.
"We call it brown sugar," said Zecchel. "When you've got brown sugar on the road, we know we've got traction."
As a result, VSA has seen an average 30-per-cent reduction on direct sand application on the road and a 50-per-cent reduction on direct salt used on the roads. That doesn't equate to a 50-per-cent reduction in overall salt used, because it's still in the liquid. Still, it's less salt.
Would it work as effectively in this area?
"In the right conditions, I think you get really good value," added Zecchel.
During VSA's testing phase, there were concerns that Beet 55 would attract animals to the roadway.
"We found no difference in the rate or location of animal kills," Zecchel said.
Other communities are looking to organic alternatives, too — Williams Lake, Toronto and Cowansville in Quebec, as well as cities in the U.S. — and they are looking at a smorgasbord of options: beet juice, pickle brine, beer waste, cheese brine.
Zecchel could not say if beet juice would be a good mix in Whistler or the surrounding Sea to Sky corridor as one more piece in the arsenal of products used to combat winter conditions.
That information comes with trial and error.
He added: "You have to learn that."
SMART ABOUT SALT AT HOME
Everyone can do their part to reduce salt. Smart About Salt offers these tips designed to make you think before you grab the salt. Every pinch counts.
• wear sturdy footwear designed for snow and ice;
• put the all-important snow tires on your car (an issue near and dear to every Whistlerite);
• shovel as early as possible and keep up with the storm cycles;
• consider using a traction aid such as kitty litter or sand;
• use de-icing material on icy areas only;
• redirect downspouts away from walkways and driveways,
• shovel unsalted snow to lower areas or onto lawns to direct melting snow away from paved areas.