January 15, 2019 11:51 am
Updated: January 16, 2019 8:37 am

Edmonton councillor seeks inquiry after calcium chloride memo fails to reach city council

WATCH ABOVE: An Edmonton city councillor plans to put forward an inquiry over why a memo outlining the impacts of calcium chloride on concrete and asphalt was never provided to city council. Julia Wong joined the noon news to explain.

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UPDATE: The City of Edmonton is taking action following a Global News investigation into a previously undisclosed city memo about calcium chloride. The city’s snow and ice program will be discussed at a council meeting on Jan. 22.  

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An Edmonton city councillor plans to put forward an inquiry to city council over why a memo outlining the impacts of calcium chloride on concrete and asphalt was never provided to councillors.

The city is currently in the second year of a calcium chloride snow-removal pilot, but the program has not been without controversy. Chemical engineers and mechanics have expressed their concerns about vehicle rust and corrosion as result of the calcium chloride; even councillors themselves were torn over the effectiveness of the chemical.

READ MORE: Newly uncovered City of Edmonton memo raises questions about impacts of calcium chloride

Councillor Scott McKeen said the four-page memo, which Global News obtained through a Freedom of Information request and provided to McKeen to review, would have been helpful to have on July 4, 2018, when councillors discussed how the program had saved the city $4.3 million the previous winter. A decision was later made in October to extend the pilot.

The memo is dated June 11, 2018.

“I would certainly want to know why city council didn’t receive this detailed analysis of the impacts of calcium chloride, particularly on concrete and asphalt,” McKeen said.

“This memo seems to indicate more troubling impacts than I was led to believe.”

The memo outlines research conducted by the city showing the use of calcium chloride brine created degradation that was “roughly 20 per cent more detrimental than salt-exposed” samples. It also found that calcium chloride-soaked samples had 12 per cent deeper ruts and had 1.5 times the mass loss of sodium chloride-soaked samples. The general conclusion that calcium chloride is detrimental to pavement degradation aligns with findings Global News heard from three engineering experts in Canada and the U.S.

“Application of calcium chloride over the life of a pavement may negatively impact its long-term performance,” the memo reads.

McKeen calls the memo “condemning.”

“It’s very troubling. I would say this research done on calcium chloride indicates there’s some real reasons to be concerned. We don’t want to be spending money over here and then, with our other actions, undermining the investments we’ve made, whether it’s in concrete, asphalt, street trees, public art.”

READ MORE: Edmonton to continue spraying calcium chloride on roads for another winter

McKeen said the memo would have raised lots of questions and skepticism had it been made available to councillors last summer. He expects it will be part of future discussions regarding calcium chloride usage in Edmonton. McKeen plans to put forward an inquiry.

“I think we need to get a response from administration — why was this memo not provided?”

Response from the city

Janet Tecklenborg, the city’s director of infrastructure operations, did not provide an answer when asked repeatedly why the memo was not given to councillors.

“I can’t really speak to the councillors. What I can speak to is the information that we use and good science leads to good decision-making,” she said.

Global News asked Tecklenborg multiple times how councillors can make informed decisions if they don’t have all the pieces of research; the questions went unanswered.

“What I can say is that this pilot project is really there to help us define the benefits of using brine and salt to reach bare pavement,” she said.

When asked whether the city was trying to keep the report secret, Tecklenborg said no, adding it needs to be put into context with other research being done.

“It’s one piece of a larger study and it needs to be really taken into context,” she said.

The city had spoken to the media in November 2018 and said the impacts to infrastructure from calcium chloride were “minimal.”  Another media event in December 2018 saw a spokesperson mention research was being done, but the conclusions of the memo were not divulged.

Tecklenborg, when asked for an explanation, reiterated how the calcium chloride was still a pilot project and the study done by the city, which was done in a lab, needed to be put into context.

More reaction

A city report found the first year of the pilot saved the city $4.3 million in snow-clearing costs that winter. The chemical is being tweaked to include a corrosion inhibitor this winter, however, two engineering experts told Global News that would not have any impact on the concrete.

READ MORE: Edmonton’s salt brine pilot saved city $4.3M on snow and ice removal efforts: report

Councillor Andrew Knack also had not seen the memo before Global News provided him with a copy, however, his reaction was more tempered.

“This report says to me, ‘Yeah there’s certainly a risk.’ We have some numbers here that would suggest there’s potential for that risk. At the same time, we want to get more detail on that. We want to fully understand that risk,” he said.

RELATED: Councillors debate Edmonton’s calcium chloride snow removal pilot: ‘nothing is perfect’

Knack said the report provides a bit more information than what was already known, and while it raises questions for him regarding the detail behind those numbers, he said it does not raise any red flags for him.

“What it says to me, and I think that last sentence clearly is the one that really reinforces it – ‘engineering services recommends further testing in this area in the future.’ That’s what we’re doing this year,” he said.

Knack said he wants to see research and data from the second year of the pilot. He wants to have further studies and analysis conducted, information gathered about costs and feedback collected from residents before making a decision about the city’s snow-removal policy.

WATCH BELOW: The use of calcium chloride on Edmonton roads has been a controversial issue the last couple years. Now, a newly uncovered memo is raising more concerns. Julia Wong has more with part one of a Global News investigation.

Concerns over costs

McKeen said the long-term infrastructure costs may be worth it if the program reduces the number of collisions; the program has been touted for helping the city get to bare pavement, which increases the stopping distance compared to ice.

However, he said the cost and benefits of this particular program need to be examined.

“I would say that we’ve been led to believe, at this point, the consequences, the costs in that cost-benefit analysis are not clear. The memo [Global News has] obtained suggests that we might have a lot larger bill down the road than council will be comfortable with,” McKeen said.

Knack said an equilibrium must be reached when it comes to the trade-offs for the city and said he is also concerned about deferred costs for infrastructure.

“Absolutely. It’s a concern that exists but it’s one that’s not based off of enough information yet,” he said.

“Is the city saving money, but are we pushing costs off to homeowners? Are we pushing costs off to new developers of communities who are putting in concrete? Or are we pushing off the cost onto vehicles? We need to understand all of that to make the most informed decision.”

Have a tip about this story? Email reporter Julia Wong at julia.wong@globalnews.ca or use the form below:

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