The Dark Side of Snow

Keep the Snow from Turning Toxic this Winter
1259002410Comment Snow

Shoveling early and often can eliminate or reduce the need for melting agents.© Getty Images

Crystalline treetops, glistening fields of billowing white—a little snowfall can transform a city landscape into a scene of tranquility, but it’s not without its poisons and its price. Snow gets dirty, and this "dirt" results in negative changes in the natural environment. From sediments to chemicals, contaminants in snow eventually seep into the earth or flow into waterways, harming both wildlife and plant life. Rock salts and sand used in snow removal, as well as motor oil and antifreeze from leaky cars, mix to create those familiar nasty black mounds of yesterday’s now-toxic snow. When it melts, the effects can be deadly to surrounding streams, plants and wildlife. There are many ways for the conscious individual to lessen these harmful impacts. Here’s how.

Be Proactive

Bust out the shovel and remove snow and ice around your home in a timely manner, the old-fashioned way. Shoveling early and often can eliminate or reduce the need for melting agents. According to a report issued by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), deicers can significantly increase salt levels in surface and ground waters and can harm plant life. The report states that increased salinity was found in groundwater more than 300 feet away from roadsides treated with deicers, and that plant damage was noted as far away as 650 feet. Using too much deicer around the home has the potential to ruin similar sized areas of your lawn or garden.

Choose your Deicer Wisely

If you do need to use a melting agent for home snow removal, choose liquid deicers to treat large areas. According to the CDOT’s "Deicer Fact Sheet," liquid deicers are less harmful to the environment than dry sand and salt mixtures. The document notes that, "increased use of liquids [by city snow removal crews] has drastically reduced air pollution and damage to roadside plant and aquatic life, associated with sand use."

The city of Denver uses a magnesium chloride-based liquid deicer as well as sand and various grades of salt. Efforts are made to sweep up the sand and salt after the snow ends, but it’s unavoidable that much of it ends up in the ground, air and water. Says Keith Hay, energy advocate with Environment Colorado, "Protecting Colorado drivers should be the first concern of CDOT and our cities and counties, but they cannot ignore the impacts of keeping the roads clear in winter."

Hay explains, "High concentrations of salt in soil and groundwater can impact fish, fowl and wildlife in affected areas. While magnesium chloride appears to be safer than some more traditional products, that does not mean that it is safe. We need to be looking for safer materials that biodegrade without leaving harmful environmental impacts. Road deicers like calcium magnesium acetate, which is a biodegradable material made from limestone and acetic acid, is an alternative to more traditional salt and sand products that impact the soil and water."Sand and salt can be appropriate choices for deicing small, concentrated areas around your home away from water and soil. Many of the harmful effects of these substances can be avoided if you thoroughly sweep up afterward and discard the sediments in a sealed container. A sand and sawdust mix can also be used.

Take Care of Your Car

Regularly inspect your car for leaks, and make needed repairs as soon as possible. Automotive fluids drip from cars and blend with snow, and when the plow trucks come through, the mix is pushed into large heaps that can stay in place for days at a time. These fluids can leach into the soil, ending or hindering future plant growth.

The snowmelt can also find its way into rivers, lakes and streams. A 2007 "Source Water and Source Water Assessment Program Report" issued by Grand Junction’s Public Works and Utilities Laboratories cites automotive leaks and spills as sources of pollution in stormwater runoff. The report states that just one quart of motor oil flowing into a storm drain can contaminate 250,000 gallons of water. Such pollution can make water uninhabitable for certain microorganisms, fish and other aquatic life.

Use the Force

With these tips in mind, you can help keep the snow pure this winter. Of course, we won’t be able to completely eradicate the dark side of snow, but if we all pitch in, perhaps we"ll see a few less piles of ugly black stuff this winter, and a little more wildlife and healthy flora come spring.