Spokane’s streets may be free of ice this winter, but the city could have trouble dodging charges of hypocrisy.
The de-icer the city uses on its streets contains trace amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Those toxins made news most recently when the company responsible for producing the pollutants, Monsanto, was sued – by the city of Spokane.
“It’s very hypocritical of us to be purchasing a product that contains PCBs when we’re suing Monsanto for producing PCBs,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said. “I asked for a plan about how we’re going to get off of PCBs. I don’t want lip service.”
Aside from what could be seen as a contradiction in city actions, there’s a city rule on the books that requires the city to give preference “where technically feasible and cost effective” to products that don’t contain PCBs. That law, which was put forward by Stuckart, was passed in June 2014, and required testing of the products and packaging the city and its vendors use.
When the city learned that its de-icer contained PCBs, it asked potential vendors of the product to test their de-icers before submitting their bids. No bids came in, leaving street officials in a bind. They could buy more de-icer and test the patience of elected officials, or attempt to locate a de-icer that meets the stringent city regulations.
With a forecast calling for snow in coming days, the clock is ticking.
Monsanto was the sole producer of PCBs between 1935 and 1979, when Congress banned them under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Until then, the company commonly sold the chemical under the name of Aroclor, which was developed by Monsanto as a coolant in electrical transformers and capacitors. It was soon used in an array of industrial, commercial and household products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said PCBs are probable carcinogens, and PCBs are linked to many types of cancers, including breast, liver, gall bladder, melanoma and others. Evidence suggests that PCBs impair the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system.
Earlier this year, the city tested 50 common products for PCBs. The city examined primarily roadway, pipe and vehicle maintenance products, and de-icer was shown to contain trace amounts of PCBs.
City officials aren’t sure why there are pollutants in the de-icer, which is called FreezGard and is produced by Compass Materials. The product is magnesium chloride, a naturally occurring salt found in the ocean and ancient sea beds. In Spokane’s case, the product is mined near the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
According to a report done by the city, there is “a large Superfund site adjacent to the Great Salt Lake that is contaminated with PCBs and other toxics. A direct link between the superfund site and the deicing product has not been verified.”
Marlene Feist, utilities spokeswoman for the city, said the city couldn’t confirm the link between the Superfund site and the PCBs, but was nonetheless investigating other types of de-icers to meet the city’s rule.
“There are about six different chemicals we can use to de-ice,” she said, noting that the city has “a couple of months’ worth” of magnesium chloride left, giving some time to look into other options.
Like Spokane, most Eastern Washington municipalities use magnesium chloride for de-icing, while most Western Washington cities use calcium chloride. The state’s transportation department uses salt brine with a sugar beet “boost.”
Feist said officials were open to new products, but said some of the difficulty the city is having is of its own making.
“Here’s the hard part: The federal government allows PCBs in products at higher levels than our water quality rules allow,” she said. “That’s where we’re kind of ahead of the rest of the nation when it comes to PCBs, and that’s where we’re hitting some roadblocks.”
Stuckart, however, suggested the city was over-thinking the matter.
“I’ve lived in Wisconsin. My wife grew up in Minnesota,” he said. “They use salt. I don’t understand why we don’t use salt. There are alternatives to PCB products.”
But even untainted salt poses its own problems. The most common salt used on roads, sodium chloride, is polluting the waterways of icy towns. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 30 percent of the Twin Cities wells have levels of chloride exceeding accepted EPA levels, and a study published the journal Science of the Total Environment showed that chloride concentrations in the streams of northern U.S. cities doubled between 1990 and 2011.
And that doesn’t even get into what it does to a car’s undercarriage.
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