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Advocate beet juice to secure icy roads

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa Department of Transportation should follow the lead of other states and some of its own cities and advocate the use of sugar beet juice to secure its streets, save money, and preserve the environment.

One week ago, Iowa City experienced the season's first snowfall, approximately 1 inch of accumulation. The result? Thirty-one vehicle crashes were reported during the morning commute in Iowa City alone. Clearly, the small amount of accumulation was enough to put lives at risk — which is the reason deicers are so important to drivers' safety.

Of course, there are many factors to consider when choosing which substance to melt the ice and snow.

Effectiveness is without a doubt the most important, because human lives are the primary beneficiary. Cost is also to be considered — many municipalities, especially Iowa City, continually face crippling budget restraints. The third principal factor is the environmental impact of a given substance. For instance, road salt often makes its way into urban and other waterways, compromising drinking water and wildlife — not even to mention the detrimental effects of salt-mining.

One natural substance can make the substances we use more powerful, more cost-effective, and more sustainable: sugar beet juice. Both the University of Iowa and Iowa City recognized the advantages of beet-juice formula — often marketed as either ProMelt (pre-mixed) or GeoMelt (unmixed) — and use it to secure our streets.

"We're on our third season using GeoMelt," said John Sobaski, Iowa City's assistant superintendent for streets and traffic engineering. "We receive 1,500 of the 3,000 tons, and we treated that 1,500 tons right here on site. It doesn't take much to coat it, and we have a two- to three-day residual effect on the pavement. It does reduce corrosion, as well, and keeps the stockpile flowing nicely.

"At a cost of $10 per ton, it's been very cost-effective and beneficial."

Unfortunately, the rest of the state hasn't been taking advantage. Some cities have — such as Bettendorf and Davenport — but others have not, including the state's capital and largest municipality, Des Moines.

"The Iowa [Department of Transportation] has probably been the most backward of all the DOTs," said Mike Bellovics, the owner of SNI Solutions, a company that manufactures GeoMelt.

He said many states' Transportation Departments have endorsed the sugar-beet formula. Nebraska, for example, imports millions and millions of pounds each year.

Iowa? Not so much.

"Iowa has a DOT that is basically only considering and using products that have been around for 40 or 50 years," Bellovics said. "Currently, the Iowa DOT has a brand-new director of operations, but the old one was terrible to work with. He would not even acknowledge his own DOT test results."

It's hard to imagine the reasoning behind the Iowa DOT's non-decision. When used alone, road salt only melts ice at temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. When road salt is used in conjunction with the sugar beet-formula, however, it can be effective up to 40 degrees below zero — a factor that can save lives at lower temperatures, as well save money from salt, concrete, and sand preservation.

"When the DOT puts plain salt on there, the water melts and goes into the cracks of the pavements," said Scott Secor, the president and owner of Secor Group, one of the companies that sells the beet mixture to the UI. "It will freeze again as it gets cold later in the night. With GeoMelt, it won't refreeze until it's 20 below. So there's substantially less breakage of your concrete … We've heard from a lot of places that say they don't have to use any sand with it, and they don't have to clean up after it. All that sand ends up in your streets and in your sewers."

By using the beet mixture, cities can cut down on the use and demand of salt to deice roads. A study from the University of Maine found that road-salt runoff can lead to high concentrations of salt in soil and water, which can have effects similar to that of acid rain. At concentrations of 220 milligrams per liter, 10 percent of a given waterway's species could die within 30 days.

Though many people may balk at the idea of using beet juice as a deicer, those that have researched the product have found it to be incredibly advantageous with little to no drawbacks. Even if preserving the environment is not a priority of the state government, the cost savings should be enough to warrant widespread advocacy and distribution from the state DOT.


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