In the aftermath of the big snowstorms at the end of December, more than 50 city of Billings employees worked around the clock one weekend to haul snow from city streets to the big parking lot at Amend Park.
The intent at the time was to use the city’s new Snow Dragon Snowmelter to turn those massive piles of snow into water, to make sure the parking lot was available when soccer season rolled around again in the spring.
But this week, city crews are filling dump trucks again — this time hauling all that snow from Amend Park to the city’s main snow-dumping ground off Airport Road.
“We hauled it all over here and now we’re hauling it all back,” one city truck driver said. “To me, it’s all a giant waste.”
That driver, a longtime employee of the city’s Street-Traffic Division of the Department of Public Works, asked that his name not be used, for fear of retaliation.
Jim Larson, secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Union Local 190, which represents workers in the Street-Traffic Division, confirmed that he, too, spoke with the driver in question, and with several other division workers as well.
“From what I’ve heard, this has been a disaster,” he said, referring to the Snowmelter.
Bill Kemp, superintendent of the division, and Vern Heisler, deputy director of Public Works, acknowledged that there have been problems with the Snowmelter, which cost $243,000, but they said it serves a purpose and will continue to be part of the city’s snow-removal efforts.
“There’s a learning curve on it, there’s no doubt about that,” Kemp said. “I don’t know how big a machine you’d need to melt all that snow.”
When Last Best News reported on the trial run of the Snowmelter 10 days ago, it was being used to melt snow heaped up in the parking lot at Stewart Park, just west of Rimrock Mall. The plan was to clear all that snow before taking the new machine down to Amend, off King Avenue East.
Stewart was never entirely cleared of snow, Kemp said, and because of how long that project was taking, he decided to start hauling snow from Amend Park to the city land southeast of the airport.
“I didn’t want a soccer mom chasing me down” if there was still snow at Amend in the spring, he said.
The Snowmelter was slower than expected anyway, Kemp said, and because of all the sand that is spread on city streets and mixed in with collected snow, the machine needed to be cleaned out two to three times every eight-hour shift.
The city worker who asked to remain anonymous said the Snowmelter bought by the city “is like for a Walmart parking lot, and that’s it. It takes forever and it doesn’t work. I don’t think it’s made for the salt and sand that’s in the snow we haul.”
Heisler, though, said units like the one the city bought are in use all over the country, and they do work.
“It was never intended to melt all the snow that was hauled,” he said. Kemp said that if the city receives up to a foot of snow this weekend, as predicted, the Snowmelter will be put back into use, as part of all efforts to make the best use of limited storage areas.
The city worker said he and the other drivers and equipment operators —Water Division crews augmented street crews during the busiest stretch — liked being able to work overtime, but he criticized the city for buying the Snowmelter sight-unseen and then wasting so much money to haul the snow twice.
He said the city dump trucks were traveling 200 miles a day during the hauling to Amend Park, each one using 20 to 30 gallons of diesel fuel a day.
The city didn’t need much space for snow dumping until relatively recently. Kemp said that for years, the only streets on which snow was plowed to the middle and later hauled away were in the downtown — where property owners paid a premium for the extra service — and four arterial streets: 24th Street West and Central, Grand and Broadwater avenues.
But residents elsewhere in the city liked what they saw, and in recent years the city has expanded to picking up snow from 18 city streets in all, including Rimrock and Poly drives, State Avenue and Orchard Lane and Hilltop Road and Bench Boulevard.
On all other city streets, snow is plowed to the curb and allowed to melt in place.
Larson, the Teamster official, also wondered how the city was allowed to let so much snowmelt, laden with so much salt, run into city storm drains eventually into the Yellowstone River.
Heisler said that has not been an issue with the state Department of Environmental Quality, and Kemp said the city uses far less salt than a lot of other northern cities. He said the city cuts the sand it spreads on street with a 10 percent mix of salt, and in the downtown magnesium chloride is sprayed directly on streets.
In other problem areas, he said, the city directly applies another product, called Ice Slicer, that is a gritty, mined material containing a variety of naturally occurring chlorides.