good for traffic, bad for environment
Issued on: 02/02/2023 – 04:22
MONTREAL (AFP) – A choreographed ballet of massive trucks, snowplows and snowblowers take to the streets of Montreal when it snows, a huge logistical effort with significant environmental costs.
Hundreds of snow removal vehicles are on the job an average of 100 days or more each year in the frigid Canadian city, dusting the streets with salt and kicking emissions into the air.
“The snow challenge in Montreal is colossal,” says city spokesman Philippe Sabourin.
If the city’s streets and sidewalks were lined up, they would total 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles), or the equivalent of the distance from Montreal to Beijing, he said.
Around 3,000 employees and 2,200 vehicles work day and night in every snowfall to make the roads passable.
In Montreal alone, the equivalent of 150,000 tons of salt are spread on streets and sidewalks in winter.
“It’s having an impact on ecosystems,” Florent Barbecot, a professor of hydrogeology at the University of Quebec in Montreal, told AFP.
“For a number of years we have observed that the salinity is increasing a little bit everywhere in the environment.”
Some of it stays on the roads, dries and evaporates as temperatures get warmer, “and ends up in the atmosphere … which will affect future precipitation,” he said.
The city recognizes that salt is bad for the environment, but despite ongoing research, no effective substitute has been found.
It’s “a material that does us a great service” by lowering the freezing temperature of ice and melting ice patches, Sabourin explained.
With nearly two meters (six feet) of snowfall in Montreal each year, the city simply cannot do without massive snow management.
people “not happy”
As a substitute, “we tried ground coffee, it smelled nice, but it wasn’t a success,” added Sabourin.
Beetroot juice, which is less caustic than salt, was also tried, “but it polluted the floors a lot, people weren’t happy,” he said.
Until the late 1990s, snow contaminated by waste and pollution was dumped directly into the Saint Lawrence River before the practice was banned.
Part of it is now poured into snow gutters connected to the sewage system.
But the bulk (75 percent) is stored in quarries where the snow is piled high. A hill on the south side of town stretches the width of several football fields and rises ten stories in height.
At the foot, trucks appear tiny in comparison when dumping snow, with most of it looking gray rather than white.
In a few months, the spring thaw will melt the snow, and waste and gravel will be separated from the water, which will be treated before being discharged into the river.
According to Barbecot, the city should simply use less salt, but that would require changing “the way we live” by limiting urban sprawl and driving less.
A snow dump in Montreal, Canada: In a few months, the spring thaw will melt the snow, separating trash and gravel from the water © Sebastien ST-JEAN / AFP
“It’s a societal decision,” he said.
On the streets, locals don’t seem ready to embrace such a massive change.
According to Charles Drolet, who worked behind the wheel of a snow blower in the city, most residents just want the streets to be plowed more often.
For resident Francine Lalonde, road salting and snow clearing are “a necessary evil”, despite the negative impact on the environment.
© 2023 AFP