COLUMBIA — On Dec. 11, Columbia had its first winter storm of the year, with high winds, dangerous road conditions — and the reappearance of cinders.
Even so, the city plans to be cinder-free and salt-only in its snow and ice removal as much as possible this winter. At an annual snow conference in October, representatives from the city, county, public schools, law enforcement and emergency personnel decided cinders would no longer be regularly used to coat streets during winter storms.
Public Works spokeswoman Jill Stedem said Tuesday that the areas in which only salt will be used are downtown and in the Village of Cherry Hill. For the rest of the city, the use of salt versus cinders is determined by whether the roads are being maintained by the city or the state and factors such as temperature and ice.
The Missouri Department of Transportation will continue regularly using cinders and salt as part of its response to winter weather. Some of the Columbia roads it maintains include Stadium Boulevard, Providence Road, College Avenue, Interstate 70, U.S. 63, Grindstone Parkway and smaller highways that head out of city limits.
Mike Belt, maintenance superintendent for MoDOT's Jefferson City district, which includes Columbia, said the state tries to use salt with "minimal abrasives" — meaning cinders, which are residue from burning coal.
Cinders, which create traction in icy conditions, are always mixed with salt, but the mix is usually mostly salt. The state always uses a cinder mix in intersections, on hills and curves, and on blacktop highways.
"Any place that we have to make sure that motorists can get stopped and get started without a lot of problems is where we use them," Belt said.
However, the winter storm on Dec. 11 was unusual, and that made the state's reaction unusual. Typically, in a winter storm, rain or melting precipitation makes roads wet , but that night Columbia roads stayed dry because their temperature was already below freezing. These conditions, along with high winds, meant that snow wasn't melting as it hit the roads.
To add a predominantly salt mix would have created a more dangerous situation by melting the snow and creating ice, Belt said, so that night the mix was mostly cinders.
Stedem said the city began its efforts on Dec. 11 with a straight salt treatment but found it ineffective because it was so cold. The switch to a salt and cinder mixture lasted until the sun came out on Dec. 12, when a strictly salt treatment worked again.
Columbia protocol is now salt-only unless temperature and ice make that treatment ineffective and cinders are needed to provide traction and to help the melting process.
Belt expects the storm coming this week will fall under normal protocol, with minimal use of cinders.
Stedem said city crews are on call.
"It doesn't matter if it's a holiday or not, our crews are out there," she said.
Motorists can check road conditions in Missouri by going to modot.org and accessing the traveler information map, which is continually updated, or by calling a toll-free number at 888-275-6638.