By Paul Fattig
When the Oregon Department of Transportation sprinkles rock salt on an experimental basis to battle ice on the Siskiyou Pass this winter, Forrest English will be watching.
“It looks like the salt they would be putting down would be going right into Bear Creek,” said English, program director of Rogue Riverkeeper, an arm of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.
“Bear Creek is one of the more impaired waterways in our region,” he added. “It probably doesn’t need any more damage to it.”
As part of a pilot project, ODOT has announced plans to use rock salt experimentally this winter on an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 5 over the Siskiyou Pass, the highest point on the interstate between Canada and Mexico.
In addition to the summit, about 120 miles of U.S. Highway 95 in Oregon between the Nevada and Idaho state lines would be part of the five-year pilot projects, officials said.
English noted that in addition to environmental damage, rock salt also acts as a corrosive when it comes to vehicles and bridges.
“I don’t know that we want to join the other salt-using states,” he said, adding, “We’ll be looking at this as things more forward.”
Both the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service have approved the pilot project, according to ODOT.
“This is an experiment — we will only be using it under limited conditions,” ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson told the Mail Tribune. “We will not be using it willy nilly.
“We do understand that salt is corrosive and damaging to the environment,” he added. “We will be very careful.”
Because of its potential environmental impact, ODOT will use only limited amounts of rock salt on the roadway and only when necessary after other methods employed by ODOT failed, he said.
In the past, the agency has used plowing, sanding and de-icing chemicals on the summit. To his knowledge, rock salt has never before been used by ODOT, Thompson said.
The agency decided to try rock salt in an effort to provide consistent driving conditions between Oregon and the neighboring states of California, Nevada and Idaho that use salt to de-ice their roads, Thompson said.
“California uses salt on its side of the Siskiyou Pass,” he said. “People traveling that stretch of road run into very different conditions when they come into Oregon.”
For instance, chains are often required on the Oregon side while they aren’t in California, he said.
“It causes delays and increases difficulty for travelers when we require chains when California doesn’t,” he said, adding it also creates a safety hazard.
As for causing corrosive problems for cars, Thompson noted that vehicles traveling into or out of California via the Siskiyou Summit are already exposed to salt on I-5 south of the state line.
Steve Curry, owner of Heritage Motors Inc. in Medford, indicated the limited additional salt on the Oregon side of the summit would have little added corrosive impact on vehicles. Most would have also traveled on the salted freeway immediately south of the state line, he noted.
Bridges in areas of eastern Oregon where the rock salt will be used will be treated with a glaze that reduces the salt’s corrosive quality, officials said.
However, Thompson suggested those driving over the Siskiyou summit this winter may want to wash their vehicles more often.
The rust-inhibited magnesium chloride now employed by ODOT as a de-icer is also a salt, albeit not as corrosive as rock salt, he said.
“It works the same way as rock salt does by lowering the freezing temperature of water,” he said. “But rock salt goes down a few more degrees.”
Neither rock salt nor the magnesium chloride is effective if the snow pack on the road is more than two inches deep, he said.
“The rock salt will only be used in limited situations when it is warranted,” he said of the pilot project. “This will just give us another tool in our toolbox if it is successful.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.