Snow, Snow Everywhere, Nowhere to Put It

All across America, cities are grappling with the growing problem of what to do with all the snow that has been piling up.

In times of heavy snowfall some states resort to shipping the removed snow to “snow farms” on rural land patches or burning it in “snow dragons” – machines that melt 30 tons of snow an hour.

Other states, including Massachusetts, have been dumping the snow in municipal parking lots.

The need for extra space has prompted one Boston lawmaker to call for the temporary lift of a ban on dumping snow in Boston Harbor. Environmentalists are balking at that idea, saying the city’s snow is contaminated with salt, oil, litter and other chemicals that pollutes the ocean.

But in most cities officials are concerned at the growing costs involved in snow removal and amid tight budgets.

Steven Lund, a Minnesota Department of Transportation maintenance engineer, says that in the past two years Minnesota has been spending record amounts on snow removal.

According to the Minnesota Department of State, the agency responsible for snow removal -- the state spent $59.2 million in 2010. In 2009 – a record snowfall year – the state spent $67.5 million to clear roadways and deal with snow.

Lund says estimates for this year are still being calculated.

“Up until January 18th of 2011 -- the most accurate data we are tracking -- (it) shows $3 million more than the record winter of 2009.”

But Lund cautions that the “sky is not falling.”

“We have no indications of salt shortage, and once we get to February, the sun starts to help a lot.”

Illinois is in good shape, too, despite the amount of snow the state has received, said Patti Thompson, spokeswoman with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

So far the snow in Illinois has been pushed to the side of the road, Thompson says. There hasn’t been a need yet there to use any other technology to deal with accumulation.

“There have been some challenges with that, but with the assistance of the Illinois National Guard, Illinois State Police, Illinois Department of Transportation and Illinois Department of Natural Resources we’ve been able to get a handle on this.”

Environmentalists have consistently raised the issue of salt use and the possibility it can contaminate the water supply and destroy other infrastructure.

Asked about use of snow dragons -- which some environmentalist say belch out pollutants in the air -- Lund says they are more for commercial use in the state.

“In Minnesota we are not using them because we have ditches and areas that allow us to push the snow.” He says salt is the state’s primary chemical of choice and that its proper use is a priority for protecting the environment.

“We are using a process called pre-wetting. We soak the salt in a brine mixture and it causes it to go into action quicker and stick to roads better so we can use less. Alternative chemicals are also available and are used and some are more beneficial so we move away from salt when we can and find we can use less.”

Bottom line, it’s become a balancing act, dealing with the immediate needs of getting the snow off the streets and doing it safely.

“During the night we had to restrict access to many of our highways because we have so many stranded motorists and then our snowplows couldn’t get through so instead of clearing the snow we ended up clearing cars,” says Thompson these segments are still restricted at this point.“

Asked if Minnesota is winning the battle of the bad weather Lund replied, “We’re not losing. This has been a long winter. our snow fighters have been out for a long time. We’re not worried.”