February 17

Central Maine towns struggle with road salt addiction

The state wants towns to pre-wet roads with brine to reduce sand and salt and stop lake pollution, but many communities are reluctant.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Growing concern about the water quality of Maine’s lakes has led the state to recommend that towns use a new practice that would lessen the environmental damage caused by spreading tons of salt and sand on the roads every winter.

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treating roads: A state Department of Transportation truck pre-wets a road by spraying salt brine, which is rock salt dissolved in water.

Contributed photo

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SALT: A state Department of Transportation truck drops salt on Interstate 95.

Contributed photo

Additional Photos Below

Salt brine 101


Salt brine is water saturated with sodium chloride, or more simply rock salt dissolved in water. It is part of Maine Department of Transportation’s anti-icing program to take a proactive approach to controlling snow and ice on Maine’s highways.


Salt brine is best used when pre-treating the road in anticipation of frost or winter storms. Salt brine can prevent frost on the road for up to three days. If applied just before a winter storm, salt brine will begin working as soon as the first snowflake falls and will delay the accumulation of snow and ice on the pavement.


Once a winter storm is in progress, salt brine is sprayed onto the rock salt, as it is applied, to accelerate the melting of snow and ice. This is known as “pre-wetting.” Pre-wetted rock salt stays on the pavement instead of bouncing off the road and wasting material. Pre-wetting with salt brine in this manner reduces the amount of rock salt that Maine DOT must use overall.


Motorists can expect to see Maine DOT crews pre-treating the roads with salt brine using specially modified tanker trucks, trailers, or units that slide into the back of a typical plow truck. Most of this equipment is capable of spreading salt brine over one, two, or three lanes of pavement.

Source: Maine Department of Transportation, www.maine.gov/mdot/winterdriving/sim.htm

Avoid salt overuse

Communities interested in learning more about how to make the switch to using a brine solution on their roads are encouraged by the state of Maine to call the Maine Local Roads Center of the Maine Department of Transportation at 1-800-498-9133.

Anyone who wants to learn more about how to treat roads and other paved areas in the best possible manner can call the Nonpoint Source Training program of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection at 215-9237.

Although state experts say pre-wetting the roads with a brine solution is safer and more effective, many towns and plowing contractors have been slow or resistant to embrace the change.

Paul Fongemie, the public works director of Winslow, said he has heard the hype about pre-wetting the roads with a brine solution, but he hasn’t yet heard a strong enough argument about the benefits to make the switch.

The switch costs money. It requires an investment in sprayer tanks and equipment. It also forces public works crews to rethink how and when they treat roads.

“It really hasn’t been examined that much here,” Fongemie said. “Some of us older guys are harder to convince. We’re a little set in our ways.”

But environmental advocates, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, have sounded the alarm on protecting the water quality of Maine’s lakes. Maine spreads about a billion pounds of salt on its roads every year, according to a 2010 University of Maine study, and that salt doesn’t just disappear when it melts. Much of it winds up in lakes, streams and groundwater supplies, which can wreak havoc on wildlife.

Native species such as white pine, salamanders, frogs and fish are sensitive to salt. When the water gets too salty, they lose ground against more salt-tolerant invasive species.

The resources council has joined with other groups, including the Maine Lakes Society, the Lakes Environmental Association and the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance to promote a new bill, L.D. 1744, that is designed to help the state Department of Environmental Protection focus on lake protection and reduce nutrient runoff to lakes, including phosphorus.

Proponents of the bill say the lakes generate more than $3.5 billion in annual economic activity and support 52,000 jobs in the state.

With a shift toward using a brine solution coming too slowly, or not at all, the state has stepped up efforts to convince communities of the benefits.

The state has formed a Salt Management Task Force, which has representatives on it from the DEP, the Department of Transportation, the Maine Local Roads Program and the Maine Winter Maintenance Task Force. The task force members are drafting an official set of best management practices for the use of salt in Maine. Once completed, as soon as this spring, the DEP hopes knowledge about using a brine solution will trickle down to the end users of Maine’s roads, paved parking lots and sidewalks.

The best management practices will be given to plowing contractors, who will in turn show them to their clients, including many of Maine’s small towns and retail businesses.


Bill LaFlamme, an environmental specialist with the DEP, said salt toxicity can kill aquatic insects, undermining the stability of the entire ecosystem.

In addition, wildlife is attracted to the salty roads, increasing the number of roadkills and collisions between vehicles and deer or moose, he said. Salt can also leach into the groundwater, contaminating wells and creating health concerns, particularly for people with hypertension.

Sand, the other substance commonly used to help cars gain traction on icy roads, has problems of its own. Sand clogs ditches and small waterways, clouding the water and creating dusty air conditions for the workers who eventually do their best to clean some of it up, typically in the spring.

Sand can also carry phosphorus into lakes, which fuels the growth of harmful algae and contributes to algal blooms that can cause massive fish kills in lakes in extreme conditions.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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POW PLOW: A plow with the Waterville Public Works clears fresh snow from Quarry Road recently.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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NEVERENDING JOB: Melinda Hansen tries to shovel her driveway on North Street in Waterville earlier this winter as two Waterville plow trucks bear down on her efforts..

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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SALT: A state Department of Transportation truck pulls a container of salt brine.

Contributed photo

click image to enlarge

brine: A state Department of Transportation truck pre-wets a road by spraying salt brine, which is rock salt dissolved in water.

Contributed photo

click image to enlarge

treating roads: A state Department of Transportation truck pre-wets a road by spraying salt brine, which is rock salt dissolved in water.

Contributed photo


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