The CN+R Q&A
DOT engineer chats brine, snow prep
Justin Bullock is entering his seventh winter working for the N.C. Dept. of Transportation. He’s the county maintenance engineer for …
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Justin Bullock is entering his seventh winter working for the N.C. Dept. of Transportation. He’s the county maintenance engineer for Chatham County, and as Winter Storm Diego approached, he was busy monitoring the spread of brine on Chatham’s roads as a winter storm approaches.
But on Friday morning, he was standing near three large piles of salt — one of which is a mixture with sand.
“This is basically where it all happens,” Bullock says, referring to the DOT’s salt storage facility on U.S. Hwy. 64 east of Pittsboro. “This is what we use to treat our roads.”
The piles are oddly artistically arranged — one a light gray, one a Carolina blue (we’ll handle that later) and one the tan color of sand, with splotches of white. Standing near his salt storehouse, Bullock spoke to the News + Record about preparing for a winter storm, why something called “brine” works best and how they decide when to prep roads beforehand or tackle them afterwards.
How long do you wait before deciding to lay brine? What signs do you look for in the weather?
We have a general plan that we always keep on hand. We make our original plan around October or so, and we do a dry run in November just to prepare for anything that may happen. When specific forecasts come, say a week out, we start to make our plan, a new plan for that particular storm. Some storms start off as pure snow, some storms may start off as rain. Of course, if it starts off as rain, we may not be able to brine initially. So we’ll come up with something different. Some storms don’t affect the whole county. Some storms may affect just the Northwest corner. So we may shift resources that direction if that’s necessary.
If they’re pretty certain it’s going to rain before, we won’t put out the brine. The brine will simply wash away. If there’s some uncertainty, like this storm, we’re going to put out the brine just to make sure we’re covered. But most of the time, if it’s going to be pure snow, we’re going to put out the brine about two days before.
Why choose brine — which is made of 23 percent salt and the rest water — over other substances?
It prevents the bond between snow and the roadway. It makes it easier for us to remove the initial part of the snow. It’s cheaper to make. It’s just another tool in the toolbox for us.
What about the salt? Why is one pile blue?
Most of the times we’ll use this salt/sand mix. If there’s a threat of ice, we may incorporate a little sand in it for traction purposes. Our provider gives us blue salt. I don’t know if that’s the mineral that they get when they mine it from the earth. I don’t know if that’s an anti-caking agent. I don’t know. But it is nice to look at. All of it is blue at some time.
When you start to clean up afterwards or during, how long does it take?
If we’re lucky and nature helps us remove the snow, we can do it quickly, actually. What slows us down sometimes is the nighttime temperature. If it drops below freezing, obviously everything we don’t clear re-freezes. Also too, traffic has some type of effect. We’re not able to clear as much as we’d like to. Also traffic packs the snow too. It turns what would have been easy to push snow into hard to push ice.