Winter Blunderland: Seattle’s Salting Policy
In 2008, Seattle avoided salting roads because of the negative environmental effects the chemicals have. Now the city is accommodating eco-friendly policies with necessary ice-melting power.
Every now and then that pesky issue of inconveniencing ourselves at the expense of the natural environment comes along. Green thinking calls on all of humanity to cut back in various areas of our lives in order to better promote environmental sustainability, and for the most part this goal can be easily accommodated. A few extra dollars here for recycled paper towels, or a few extra thousand dollars there for a hybrid car — individual choices make up the majority of the green campaign. Widespread changes in policy, on the other hand, have many repercussions, many of which are not realized until it’s too late. What happened the winter of 2008 in Seattle is an example of tension between eco-friendly ideas and unintended complications. This particular event left hundreds out of luck and second guessing green ideals. The Seattle Times ran an article about the city’s eco-friendly storm policies in December 2008. Many in the Northwest remember this as a two-week period in which Seattle was all but shut down. In 2008, the approach in the Emerald City was to avoid salting roads because of the negative environmental effects the chemical concoctions could have. According to many sources, including an MSNBC article, road salt “can be responsible for changes in water chemistry many miles downriver from a road crossing. ‘You can see the effects all the way down to the ocean,’” said Stephen Norton, a University of Maine professor. The article also mentions, “Excess salt changes stream chemistry, causing certain minerals to leach out of soils. At high concentrations, salt can increase the acidity of water, causing some of the same negative effects as acid rain.” Such environmentally altering consequences were the reasons behind the no-salting policy in Seattle, where aquatic species, particularly salmon, are treated with special attention. So, while the snow fell and piled up at a rate the city had never seen, the salmon were happy. As an former Seattleite, I will be the first to back an eco-friendly venture or product, but when emergency services are halted or painfully delayed (literally) perhaps a rethinking of policy is a good idea. The Seattle Times article details the lengthy waits of Seattle citizens who suffered at the hands of Old Man Winter one year ago. An asthma attack left one woman immobile for hours on end. A 21-year-old woman did everything she could to postpone the birth of her daughter while in labor. Another little girl was “run over by a vehicle while sledding” and suffered life-threatening injuries. All of these cases were reported in that December snowstorm, and all of these people waited upwards of three or more hours to receive much-needed medical attention because of the fire, police and ambulance’s inability to navigate the icy streets in hilly Seattle. Additionally, and to a much less terrifying degree, the city buses aggravated many and became all but useless as they stalled and blocked traffic throughout the city. Today, when the accidents have been dealt with and the emergencies have been solved, a new approach to adverse weather conditions has been implemented. In the words of the Transportation Department, in accordance with Seattle’s newly hired Director of the Street Maintenance Division, Monty Sedlak, “Salt first, ask questions later.” This winter, Seattle is prepared to cover roads with mixtures of brine, sodium chloride, salt and alkali “at a rate of 200 pounds per mile, if a snow or ice storm arrives.” This approach has one aim only: to get the roads clear so emergency vehicles can get to where they need to be. And, with a goal of reaching any emergency within two to four minutes, (according to Kenny Stuart, President of the Seattle Fire Fighters Union), the deicing of roads is paramount. Whether a one-time thing or a routine event, this situational policy change in Seattle is representative of the spectrum between green practices and pragmatic standards within which we are all forced to live. Eco-friendly is a growing philosophy, and being “green” is a hot topic, but priorities are different for everyone. While such emergency circumstances are surely rare, a critical look is needed in green practices as much as in any other. Without such analysis it is nearly impossible to ensure a healthy, symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, which in the end are the overall goals of the green movement. For eco-friendly deicing tips, see the 1-800-RECYCLING article “Deice the Earth-Friendly Way.”