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Maine's Snowy Roads May Be Treated With 'Magic'

AP Photo
An Agency of Transportation worker loads salt in a plow truck in Vermont

Another week, another nor'easter, making the commute on slick snow-covered roads slower than molasses running uphill. And, if anyone happened to driving uphill in Bangor, they were actually traveling on top of molasses — or more accurately, molasses-treated road salt. The sticky liquid is used help salt adhere to the highway's surface.

As snowplow crews in Bangor worked throughout the day to clear the roads, they turned to a product called “Ice Be Gone” or “IBG Liquid Magic,” a molasses-based liquid that provides more traction while using less salt, according to Bangor Public Works Director Dana Wardwell. He adds that it is not the sort of thing you would want to pour on your pancakes.

“It's kinda brown, I didn't taste it or anything, they tell me it's a molasses base," says Wardwell.

"Magic" makes the salt adhere to road surfaces longer, eliminating the need for reapplications. Wardwell says it saves money and results in less sodium chloride runoff, which raise the salinity levels in area streams and ponds.

The key, he says, is to be prepared well before the first snowflake falls.

"Before the storm, the last couple of days we put a mixture of salt brine, 70 percent salt-brine and 30 percent magic, which is a magnesium chloride and it's got molasses with it," Wardwell says. "So we put that on the roads to kind of help at the beginning of the storm.”

Molasses isn't the only ice removal additive that would seem more at home in a kitchen cupboard than in a chemical laboratory. Some highway departments in Wisconsin use cheese brine, others in North Carolina have added beer waste to their road salt. The Maine Department of Transportation has actually used beet juice in the past.

"We basically were mixing with calcium chloride or with a salt brine," says Maintenance Engineer Brian Burne says. "It worked out pretty well. It was a little more expensive, I think to haul the beet juice out here it was close to $3 a gallon and we can buy the current product that we buy is called Magic Minus Zero and that, instead of using the beet sugars, it uses molasses. So it's the same concept; just a slightly different material."

Jonathan Rubin says these innovations are a welcome way to reduce the environmental effects of road salt. Rubin is the director of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, and he was the lead author of a 2010 report detailing road salt use in the state.

"The key is to be smarter about this and use less by better management," Rubin says. "The Maine DOT is doing a good job in terms of educating, but they only control certain Maine state roads. There's huge amounts of salt used on the municipal level and town level and it's really about getting the best practices out to all the towns and contractors to reduce salt to the bare minimum that's necessary for our clear roads."

In addition to cleaner water, Rubin says there real financial incentives to using road salt strategically. Rubin says the annual road salt price tag for the DOT, the Maine Turnpike Authority, and the state's municipalities comes in at just under $100 million. A little magic might drive this cost down.

This story was originally published March 8, 2018 at 4:32 p.m. ET.