Critics claim solution sprayed on roadways
can short-circuit equipment
By Gargi Chakrabarty
Rocky Mountain News
When the snow melts, the power goes out.
Local utility companies blame magnesium chloride –
a salt used to clear icy highways and interstates –
for power outages in ski areas and along highways.
Colorado's Department of Transportation challenges that
"There is no study, no evidence, to suggest that magnesium
chloride causes outages," said CDOT spokeswoman Stacey
CDOT, which started using magnesium chloride in the late
1980s, spent roughly $3.15 million on it in 2003, up 12 percent
Magnesium chloride is a cost-effective and environment-friendly
product, Stegman said.
But some utilities aren't so sure.
They say magnesium chloride, when mixed with snow, turns
to vapor and becomes airborne. The airborne salt, coupled
with dust, can settle on electrical equipment such as insulators
and fuses in substations along highways and interstates.
Unless equipment is cleaned or replaced, the coating of
salt and dust - when it becomes wet during the next snowfall
- can conduct electricity, creating a path to ground and resulting
"We have had problems in the past three to four years
with magnesium chloride," said Bob Gardner, general manager
of administrative service at Holy Cross Energy.
The rural electric utility serves the ski resorts of Vail,
Beaver Creek, Aspen, Snowmass and Sunlight.
Gardner said the utility faced outages along the I-70 corridor
in Eagle Valley, especially between Vail and Eagle, during
"The only thing that may have caused the outages, we
believe, is magnesium chloride," Gardner said. "We
have been in this area for years, just as the highway has
been, and there hasn't been any problem before the department
started using magnesium chloride."
But Gardner conceded there were fewer outages this winter,
which could be because of better weather or changes in how
CDOT uses the chemical. Unlike previous years when CDOT sprayed
highways with magnesium chloride before snowfalls, it does
so now only when the flakes start falling.
Reeves Brown, president of Club 20, an alliance of 20 western
Colorado counties, said trucking companies have similar concerns
because magnesium chloride from the road can short the trucks'
"Two studies, one by the trucking industry and the
other by the University of Idaho, are looking into the effects
of magnesium chloride," Brown said.
But he argued it is better than sand or sand salts. Brown
said sand causes environmental problems such as clogging creeks,
and sand and other particulates contribute to air pollution.
Club 20 has scheduled a meeting in late March to discuss
the issue with trucking, skiing and utility companies as well
as CDOT and environmental groups.
Xcel Energy, which serves 1.2 million electric customers
in Denver and neighboring areas, reported pole fires and outages
at substations near highways, spokesman Steve Roalstad said.
Hart Gleason, director of projects and business development
at San Miguel Power Association, said he'd heard about concerns
regarding magnesium chloride from neighboring utilities.
The utility serves Telluride and Silverton ski areas.
"Fortunately, we don't have any power lines or substations
physically close to a highway or an interstate," Gleason
said. "But we believe there is a relationship between
the use of magnesium chloride and tracking on insulators that
Brad Gaskill, general manager of Mountain Parks Electric,
which serves ski resorts near Winter Park, said he was aware
of similar concerns.
But CDOT remains skeptical.
"We agree that yes, there's potential to cause outage
because it is salt, and that is an electricity conductor,"
Stegman said. "But power outages are nothing new - there's
one every time there's a storm. It is wrong to blame magnesium
chloride for every outage."
The use of magnesium chloride in the past 12 years has cut
snow-related accidents on I-25 and I-70 by 14 percent, while
traffic volume has increased 23 percent, Stegman said.
Cost also is a factor, said Ed Fink, a regional director at
Magnesium chloride costs 30 cents a gallon, compared with
potassium acetate, calcium magnesium acetate or sugar-based
de-icers that could cost from $2 to $4 per gallon.
Stegman said CDOT, responding to ski-area utilities' concerns,
launched three pilot projects along I-70 last year. CDOT used
sand and other products on the test sites.
Stegman said CDOT didn't hear from back from the utilities
about whether they saw improvements. Gardner, of Holy Cross
Energy, said he was never asked for feedback.