A choice between salt and pepper

Michael Johansen
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Medical science teaches that a little bit of sodium chloride is good for the health, but too much is dangerous. It causes high blood pressure.

Proof of this is clear on the highways around central Labrador. One look at most drivers reveals the symptoms: flushed faces, general agitation and a tendency to complain.

The cause is salt, the salt the provincial Department of Transportation spread on the road from Happy Valley-Goose Bay to North West River without telling the public beforehand.

According to the current minister, his department was forced to defy the quite clear local opposition to the use of salt on Labrador’s roads.

Paul Davis told CBC Radio that he had to move fast to prevent tragedy after hearing shocking reports from his staff about sheets of glare ice that threatened calamity to drivers on Route 520. The road was so slippery, he said, that he could have skated with a puck all the way into North West River. Would that he had. What he felt forced to do instead was to call in a sodium chloride strike.

“We had to be concerned about safety. We had to be responsible to correct circumstances when we can and the only way to do that was to apply salt under the conditions. …What happened on North West River road last week was a circumstance that we had no other means to deal with. … We had no other choice. … Sand works most of the time to the satisfaction of the people of the community, but in this circumstance I really felt we had no choice.”

   Au contraire, as many contrarians say. The minister himself names several choices. Pure sand, which abounds in the region, is an excellent one and so are the “trucks equipped with carbide-blade tips.” However, he said the carbide tips hardly scratched the icy surface and the sand just blew away in the wind.

A third choice is a liberal use of sand combined with a loud media campaign warning drivers to slow down.

That would have satisfied the people of the local communities quite well, since they already know how to drive in bad conditions, having driven them all winter and every winter for years. They’re more worried about their rust-free vehicles becoming like the salt-corroded wrecks that commonly drive Newfoundland highways.

As it happens, the salt seems to have made no difference whatsoever. It must have blown away with the sand to contaminate the surrounding woods. Little of it seems to have stuck long enough to melt any ice. The truth is, no one has seen the North West River highway since November. The minister’s private contractors have been clearing the snow off it, but in a less-than-timely fashion.

Any of the many commuters who drives the 40-kilometre road multiple times a day can attest that the whole thing has been ice-covered all winter. Also, they’ll tell you that if the government finds any more smooth stretches, it should leave them alone because they’re the safest places. The dangerous ice comes as high bumps and deep ruts, which only spring can cure.

For the rest of this winter the best choice is pepper, not salt. The best choice for next winter is to get the plows out earlier and more frequently, before (not after) hundreds of tires have pounded the snow into hard, icy layers.

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador, however, seems intent on eliminating central Labrador as the last holdout in the province against the salty tide. After all, as Davis pointed out, it’s surrounded; western Labrador succumbed some years ago and the government has already been strewing the white stuff on the Trans-Labrador Highway without seeking local permission.

Actually, to be fair (even if he himself never sees it), Minister Davis came up with the best choice of all:  “You know, I’d like a circumstance where we don’t have to use any of it,” he said.

Did he mean, everyone everywhere? Think of it: the whole province of Newfoundland and Labrador as salt-free as Upper Lake Melville, where cars last for decades — not a just a few short years. There are many ways to prevent highway crashes, but only one way to stop rust.

Michael Johansen is a writer

 living in Labrador.

Organizations: Department of Transportation, CBC Radio

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, North West River, Happy Valley Goose Bay Upper Lake Melville

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