Baltimore to battle snow with blue salt

Trials with colorful crystals could quell complaints that trucks failed to plow streets

October 29, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

Those wishing for a white Christmas might end up with a blue one this year.

Proving that it is never too early to start fretting about snow, Baltimore announced yesterday a new weapon in its winter arsenal: blue salt.

It is test-driving the blue road salt, and some green as well, not so much to fight ice but to cool people's complaints about tardy snow removal. Officials said they're frustrated each winter with people who call the city to complain that plows haven't been down their street - even when they have. Colored salt will give the city proof, and maybe peace.

"Why, you ask, is colored salt important?" Mayor Martin O'Malley said at a news conference in front of the city's salt storage warehouses on Falls Road. "We get calls all the time from people saying, `Why haven't we cleared their street? We haven't had a truck go by all day.' And we say, `Au contraire ... we've been there three times.' And they'll say, `I'm looking outside right now and don't see salt.'"

"Now, unless they have vision problems that prevent them from seeing colors," they'll know the trucks were there, he said.

Although the city has 17,000 tons of white salt on hand to treat main roads and thoroughfares, it will be testing 25 tons each of the blue and green salt on residential streets. If the new salt works and people like it - and the city's telephone lines quiet down after a snowfall - Baltimore could make it a regular part of the winter plan.

The blue, city officials said, is a bit lighter than the turquoise of windshield wiper fluid. They haven't seen the green yet, but they've been assured it's a pale shade.

O'Malley joked yesterday that the colored salt would be his "great innovation," the thing people will remember him for.

Other cities have made the switch already. Washington has gone blue since 2001.

"We like it. What's not to like?" said Mary Myers, spokeswoman for the district's Department of Public Works. First, she said, it stops residents from "calling nonstop." And, she added, "It's nonstain, nontoxic and, you know, cool."

District officials, also painfully familiar with calls from impatient snowbound residents, were as excited as their Baltimore counterparts to have proof that they plowed.

Myers said colored salt was the district transportation director's "dream."

"She said no red and no yellow, but other than that, she didn't care what color it was."

Colored salt is more expensive than the regular kind, said Robert Marsilli, the Baltimore Transportation Department's executive director for operations and maintenance.

The blue, a water-soluble substance that works essentially like regular salt, costs an extra $4 a ton.

The green, known as "spiked salt," contains magnesium chloride to help it melt ice faster at colder temperatures. It is also supposed to attract sunlight better than regular salt. That makes it $10 more a ton.

The city is not paying extra for the initial batch of colored salt - it's a sample to test.

Officials said the colors won't stain or leave pavement, cars or clothes tinted aqua or green. Washington officials said they have had no complaints.

In fact, Myers keeps a bottle of the blue salt on her desk. The color, she said, is "very soothing and calm."

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