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Could beets be an answer to Philly’s polluting use of salt for winter weather?

A City Council hearing looked at ways to reduce dependence on road salt, which can pollute streams, endanger aquatic life, and corrode pipes and vehicles.

PennDot salt storage at Front Street and Oregon Avenue in Philadelphia. The city depends on salt to mitigate the effects of winter storms on its 2,500 miles of roads.
PennDot salt storage at Front Street and Oregon Avenue in Philadelphia. The city depends on salt to mitigate the effects of winter storms on its 2,500 miles of roads.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The emergence of beet products over the past decade has been one of the more novel methods in tackling pollution from salts used to treat roads for winter weather. The products are used as a deicer that lowers the freezing point of water.

But will Philadelphia City Council ever go for that?

Using one product, BEET HEET, made of beet sugar could save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars over a decade and help reduce waterway pollution from road salt and brine, according to one of nearly a dozen people testifying at Philadelphia City Council hearing hosted last week by Councilmember Isaiah Thomas.

Denver Preston, national sales manager for BEET HEET, made by K-Tech Specialty Coatings, based in Indiana, told the group that while the cost of beet sugar might seem high compared to relatively cheap road salt, the product greatly reduces the need for salt and leads to cost savings over time. He said that over 10 years, the city uses 34,700 tons of salt, which could be reduced by nearly 40% by adding his product made of beet sugars and chlorides.

“That would equate to that 542 semi loads of rock salt, and your net savings would be somewhere in the ballpark of $667,000,” Preston said. “Or a return on investment of 267%.”

Preston said he has a raft of clients, though they are mostly clustered in the Midwest, with a few in Pennsylvania and New York. It was too early to tell whether Philadelphia would be receptive. His was the only private company to testify at the hearing, though other companies make deicers from agricultural products such as beets.

» READ MORE: Winter road salt is making some Philly-area streams as salty as the ocean, enough to kill wildlife

Experts testifying at Thursday’s hearing said chloride in local waterways is a growing problem, once limited to causing havoc in creeks, streams, and rivers in the winter. Now, they said, there is so much salt that problems linger through summer — bad news for fish and other aquatic life.

Not only that, but the applications pose a threat to people on sodium-restrictive diets (Philly gets its drinking water from the rivers) and dog paws, and they corrode not only pipes but cars — as noted by Jana Tidwell, a AAA spokesperson.

Richard Montanez, the deputy commissioner for the Streets Department, acknowledged the problem but said there are a lot of factors to consider when using salt on the city’s 2,500 miles of roads.

“There is a balance between clearing the street with salt and be mindful of the environment,” Montanez said. “It is important to make sure all streets are clear of snow for safe travel. This is not only important for the safety of the users of the road, but also to keep commercial moving in and out of our city.”

Montanez said the city’s unique geography, with I-95 often serving as a line of demarcation between snow and rain, makes predicting where and how to use salt tricky: To the east of the federal highway is the flat, normally warmer Atlantic Coastal Plain; to the west, the rising, and cooler, Piedmont. For example, there is a 500-foot rise in elevation between Philadelphia International Airport and Chestnut Hill.

He said the city has moved away from the belief of years past that more salt is always better.

“Salt is the most effective and quickest way to treat roadways,” Montanez said. “Not only within the city but also across the country. However, there are environmental impacts. Salt is a metal, and when it gets into our streams and rivers it is difficult to remove. Also too much salt can be destructive to certain species of vegetation.”

Instead, the city has moved more toward using brine, a mixture of about 75% water and 25% salt, which has much lower levels of chloride than road salt, and is a good proactive product for helping prevent snow from sticking to surfaces.

Though Montanez did not specifically address BEET HEET, he said the city has discussed using beet products, but for a number of reasons, decided against it. Among the reasons: the city can’t store it for long periods like salt, which can be stockpiled for years.

John Krafcykz, a maintenance and engineering executive for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, echoed Montanez on a number of issues. He said PennDOT has learned how to reduce its use of rock salt by 20% to 30% over the years.

As for agricultural products, such as beets, Krafcykz said the products have to be manufactured with other additives but are more expensive than salt “and require separate material handling systems and storage systems ... and again, they cannot be kept from year to year.”

Regardless, environmental advocates and scientists testified that salt can reach ocean levels after a storm. In part, they blame private contractors who often leave big piles of road salt behind in shopping center parking lots, which ultimately makes its way into nearby streams. Officials need to coordinate an effort with other municipalities upstream of Philadelphia to educate contractors, they said.

“It’s the private applicators who have the least training,” said John Jackson, senior research scientist at the Stroud Water Research Center. “And have the equipment that’s least easily controlled.”

Laura Toran, a hydrogeologist and professor at Temple University, called the salt issue a “really tough problem to solve.”

“Some of these streams I’ve been sampling for more than 15 years, and I’ve watched the salt concentration steadily rise,” Toran said. “So we’re continuing to add to the problem. ... Whatever we’re doing to mitigate it isn’t quite working yet.”

Toran said data show salt concentrations “creeping up” from 50 milligrams per liter in the 1970s, to 150 to 200 now. Some locations she monitors are averaging over 200 milligrams per liter on average annually, with winter concentrations peaking at over 1,000. Without human influence, the streams would be running around 10 or 20 milligrams per liter.

For his part, Thomas, the councilmember who hosted the hearing, said that he was grateful for the testimony and that “we heard excellent ideas on ways Philadelphia can be more sustainable and hope to continue this dialogue in preparation for next winter.”