It’s a familiar sight to anyone driving along Highway 7 in the Northwest Territories: plumes of dust following vehicles along dirt roads.
Those plumes are a safety hazard as they reduce visibility. They can also have long-term health impacts for those consistently breathing them in. The same dust is an issue on community roads, too.
The solution across the territory is typically either a calcium chloride salt that draws moisture from the air to help keep road surfaces damp, or DL-10, an asphalt-based chemical dust suppressant.
But critics say these products come with their own pitfalls: salt pollutes the surrounding area and asphalt is prone to drying out and cracking.
This week, Nahanni Butte will become the first community in the Dehcho to implement an alternative marketed as more sustainable, non-toxic and non-corrosive by its manufacturer.
“Chief Steve Vital and I have been focused on improving infrastructure and living conditions in Nahanni Butte, and we were actively looking for a solution to this problem,” said band manager Soham Srimani.
“There is a lot of dust on our roads and we have been hearing complaints about it from Elders and people with respiratory issues. Then one fine morning, we got a call from Kasia.”
Kasia Bosnjak is the distribution sales manager for BBE Expediting, a company that distributes the product in question – Dust/Blokr – in the NWT.
“The Northwest Territories has only approved a handful of methods for dust control,” Bosnjak said.
“Most of these methods, like the salt method, they erode vehicles and they are just not very environmentally friendly.
“Salt attracts wildlife to roads, it damages vegetation, and – especially when you have a road located near a waterway, like we have in Nahanni Butte – it can negatively affect a whole ecosystem.”
As far back as 1999, an Environment Canada study found that road salts were entering freshwater systems at an alarming rate, with serious potential impacts to plants and animals. The federal government developed a “code of practice” in 2001 to try to limit the damage, a code still in use today. But that code doesn’t suggest finding or using any alternative to salt.
Some municipalities are experimenting with cost-effective alternatives, from beet juice and pickle brine to barley residue from distilleries. But the majority of these solutions focus on de-icing winter roads rather than de-dusting, as fewer jurisdictions deal with the North’s combination of violent frost heaves that make paved roads a challenge and very dry summers.
“When Kasia told me about this alternative, I was so excited,” said Srimani.
“I immediately wanted to sent Chief Vital all the product information, and he really was interested as well. Within one or two months, we got all the approvals in place for applying the solution this year.”
The product, which has been around for decades, was created by Cypher Environmental, a Winnipeg-based company that primarily services the mining industry. It’s a blend of sugars and starches that works as a binding agent on loose particles in the road. The company says it lasts longer than salt.
But is sugar and starch not an even greater recipe for roadkill?
“It’s a very common question, but the sugar actually does not attract wildlife,” said Bosnjak.
“There is a certain chemical inside that deters wildlife, which I know is key here in Nahanni Butte. Chief Steve Vital and I were just chatting about how there is a herd of buffalo that comes into the roads and around buildings and homes when they usually spray the salt – they’re very attracted to the salt.”
“The community is very happy,” said Srimani. “They’re really happy we’re doing something about this.”