Road Salt is a Problem

January 2, 2021

Salt is useful because it is inexpensive and somewhat effective in breaking down ice and snow on our roads.  Following a storm, major roads need to be safe and passable.

Salt is dangerous because:

  • at high levels it is toxic to plant and animal life,
  • it corrodes our roads, bridges, and pipes (like in Flint Michigan), and
  • it elevates salt consumption in our drinking water (making it more dangerous for people with high blood pressure or kidney disease; organizations like WSSC do not take salt out of our water).

Over the last year, the Muddy Branch Alliance has been monitoring chloride levels in the Muddy Branch Stream.  We have noticed that following snow events, the chloride levels in these streams goes from “fair” (usually from about 90-150 ppm) to “poor” (over 250 ppm) quality.  Poor means that the water is toxic at some level to animal and plant life.

The City of Gaithersburg is doing a good job with salt distribution.  Not only are they putting down salt responsibly, but they are also cleaning up afterward – we’ve see the street cleaners!  The one thing Gaithersburg could do better on is limiting the salt to only emergency routes and hilly areas.  In my neighborhood, for example, my flat dead-end only needs to be plowed.  This might also save the city a few dollars in salt and labor costs.  Gaithersburg does an excellent job plowing.

Our state and county also do a good job in salting our streets.  They also use brine, they train themselves on smart salt use, and they watch the weather forecast closely.  Private organizations, which make up about 30% of the salt in our streams, don’t do such a good job.  Private organizations are worried about slip and fall litigation and tend to oversalt.  Private organization are often untrained and dump salt, sometimes to make a buck.

Example of oversalting at local shopping center

Below is a chart showing salt levels in the Muddy Branch near Rt 28 in D15.  Notice the high marks following winter salt distribution.  The levels under Great Seneca Highway and at Watts Branch are even worse.


Blog and images courtesy of guest writer, Karl Van Neste, Montgomery County resident and Muddy Branch Alliance Board Member

And don’t forget to be Salt-wise at home.

4 comments on "Road Salt is a Problem"

  1. Mary-Jo Cosgrove says:

    I have always agreed with not using chemicals. In and out of the house.
    In West Virginia and western Maryland they use ‘cinders’. It may be more
    Expensive but less environmental impact and can be swept up by street
    Cleaners. My suggestion is to do away with brine as well because it is not effective
    At different certain temperatures. Cinders all the way.

  2. Rebecca St John says:

    Good information. What is the blue coloring in many store or apt complexes salt scattering?
    Also the city of Gaithersburg has an event called Salt on Winter Roads presentation and discussion on Feb 12 at 7pm.
    Green Cocktails | Gaithersburg, MD › about-us › city-facilities › green-cocktails
    Thumbnail image
    The discussion is appropriate for all ages. Cocktail recipes are suitable for … How salt treatments on our winter roads affect the environment. Speaker: Samantha …

  3. MaryJo Cosgrove says:

    The usage of cinders allows traction without chemicals. If county is already going to use street cleaners then at the end of the winter season, use them. It will save money in the long run and omit chemical usage which harms residential wells, oh yes it does, and chesapeake bay water runoff, including wildlife.

  4. Cb says:

    Over salting is a HUGE problem in our small cul de sac. MoCo NEVER plows our county rd. but Dumps over 1” of salt on lower end, rarely at the top of the court. And it’s One Big Pile; not spread evenly up/down court at all! Oh, and it all goes down into the new drainage system they made which feeds into Sligo Creek!!! MoCo has failed in providing the tax-paying homeowners living in this court with snow removal services. And Street cleaning?—OMG! like maybe 3x in 30yrs & then it’s only in a circle in the center in the Fall, never around the perimeter and gutters where dirt gathers. Horrible and pretty lame.

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