Mag chloride means money |

Mag chloride means money

EAGLE COUNTY AIRPORT – The use of magnesium chloride to de-ice roads and highways in the mountains is a question of green impacts to some, but for many the decision has an impact on whether their bottom line is red or black.

Environmentalists question the use of the liquid ice-melting solution and claim it has deleterious effects on wildlife, watersheds and the flora around roads. The Colorado Department of Transportation uses magnesium chloride on the Interstate 70 corridor through the mountains, and many towns employ it to keep local thoroughfares frost-free.

The use of the chemical compound, however, has secondary effects that trickle into unexpected economic sectors such as lodging, food and beverage and the automotive service industry – and also might exacerbate the state’s drought conditions.


Open for business

Magnesium chloride keeps the highways open and safe for drivers. But some businesses don’t mind when I-70 closes. Alisa Graham, manager of Old Chicago in Silverthorne, said that when the interstate is closed at the tunnel, the restaurant benefits.

Backed-up ski traffic fills seats in Old Chicago, Graham said, and travelers tend to order appetizers and drinks while they wait for I-70 to reopen. It’s good for the restaurant and good for servers’ tips.

The Silverthorne highway interchange (I-70 crisscrosses U.S. Highway 6 and Colorado Highway 9 at that point – both of which see mag chloride use) is also home to numerous hotels. Weary travelers returning to the Front Range from as far as Aspen who don’t want to wait out a storm or accident cleanup often check in and wait an extra day to depart the High Country.

“Typically, I encourage guests not to worry too much because CDOT does an incredible job of keeping the roads clear,” said Pamela Thurrott, general manager at Dillon’s Super 8 Motel. “Some people are willing to stay in the car, but the majority are tired – especially if they’ve come from the west and Vail Pass is really bad. It’s certainly not a bad thing for the hotels.”

A severe shutdown can have negative effects, though. When a mid-March snowstorm shut down I-70 between Morrison and Frisco, as well as Loveland Pass over the Continental Divide, trucking and tourist traffic was stranded. Eastbound truckers flooded interstate exits between Glenwood Springs and Frisco. While good for initial sales, the hordes strained lodging, restaurants and other businesses. The Glenwood Springs post office reported there was no mail to deliver. Grocery stores who depend on shipments from Denver found supplies of staples such as eggs running out, and gas stations were left wondering when trucks would arrive to refill depleted tanks.

Keeping the highways open with mag chloride seems to be increasing business for automotive service stations, as well. The debate over the corrosive power of the substance is unsettled, but it concerns car owners nonetheless. Service managers have reported some problems they believe are related to the de-icer.

Dan Spohn, service manager of Rey Motors in Glenwood Springs, said CDOT uses mag chloride heavily to keep traffic moving in Glenwood Canyon – he can tell from the brake pads he sees. Spohn said mag chloride doesn’t cause deterioration so much as it builds up, leading to squeaky noises and uneven brake pressure.

Mag chloride also can cause a buildup on exhaust pipes, said Tim Ostwalt, service manager at Red Mountain Subaru-Nissan in Glenwood Springs. When the tailpipe heats up, the mag chloride residue gives off “a funky smell,” and drivers mistakenly think they have a fluid leak in the engine.

“But I really don’t think it’s increasing costs for the good it does,” Spohn said. “One wreck is a lot of damage. If it saves one, that’s thousands of dollars saved at a whack.”

Not everyone in the auto service field agrees, though. Tow trucks from Ron’s Texaco in Frisco see increased washing to get mag chloride off the company’s heavy-highway-use wreckers. Rust on the truck’s chrome bumpers is accelerating because of the de-icer, employees said.

Ron’s Texaco mechanic Jeff Lewark also has encountered corrosion problems with newer models that shouldn’t be having those problems, he said. Lewark recently replaced wire connections between the inside and outside electronics of a 3-year-old car. Lewark said any place on a car that isn’t air- and water-tight can suffer corrosion problems and require repairs ahead of schedule.

To avoid any such problems, many towns have opted not to use mag chloride – but that decision has economic consequences, and they aren’t cheap. Avon officials decided not to wait for conclusive scientific studies and have chosen to use calcium magnesium acetate, or CMA. The town chose that de-icer because it is purportedly not as corrosive and doesn’t kill plants and fish when it’s washed off roads and into streams.

Likewise, the Eagle County Airport uses a de-icing alternative. To keep runways usable, the airport employs anhydrous sodium acetate, a solid compound. Airport operations manager Kenny Maenpa said even million-dollar jets don’t have the protective undercoatings given to SUVs, and the corrosive nature of mag chloride would wreak havoc on planes’ sensitive equipment. Mag chloride is actually forbidden by airport-regulating authorities, Maenpa said.

The drawback: CMA costs $1,400 per ton, compared to $60 per ton for mag chloride. Anhydrous sodium acetate costs about $2,000 per ton. For a town or CDOT to use one of these alternatives on a 100-mile stretch of road would mean an annual budget dent of as much as $194,000 more than the expense for mag chloride.

Other alternatives have associated costs, too. Sand, the old highway standard for traction, is choking the life out of some creeks and streams.

So towns and agencies using mag chloride opt instead to encourage drivers to wash their cars. The washing recommendation is no different from prescriptions for other road treatments, said CDOT spokeswoman Stacy Stegman. Stegman said all highway treatments have corrosive properties and the message to drivers has always been to wash cars after a storm.

“People will want to wash their cars from the weather anyway,” Stegman said.

But with several years of drought throughout the state and water reservoirs that have hit record-low levels this season, car-washing could have further impacts. Troopers at several Colorado State Patrol posts throughout the mountains said their fleets do get increased washing because of mag chloride. The cost-benefit analysis just depends on your perspective.

“I’d rather have a dirty, greasy windshield than a highway full of fatal accidents any day,” said one trooper.

Liz Gardener is the manager of water conservation at Denver Water, which serves 1.2 million customers on the Front Range. Gardener said the water utility’s engineers estimate Denver uses 200 acre-feet of water each year for car washes, and the group has begun a certification program for commercial car washes and agencies with large car fleets. She said most of her co-workers have been concerned about the exterior of cars – not the undersides – until Denver residents brought mag chloride to their attention at the end of February.

“We’re waiting for feedback from our lab on that,” Gardener said. “But I doubt we’d be able to mandate that car washers limit water use completely. For mom-and-pop car washes to go in and retrofit their operations – talk about an economic impact.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or

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