The Fierce Politics of Dust

DUCK CREEK VILLAGE, Utah – On a sunny afternoon in June 2019, in southern Utah’s remote alpine hamlet of Duck Creek Village, an elderly man shuffled between the ponderosa pines lining Erin DeLoe’s gravel driveway and asked her for $200. It was for the dust, she recalls him saying, a shared neighborhood problem. In response to increasing traffic from outdoor tourists on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and weekend visitors escaping Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, residents had hired a Wyoming-based company called Dustbusters Enterprises to spray their roads with a magnesium chloride solution meant to tamp down the dirt surface.

DeLoe, an accountant, was just back from a trail run and, admittedly, covered in dust. She told him she didn’t think she wanted to support that. Then she went inside to scour the Internet for information about magnesium chloride.

According to the research DeLoe found, magnesium chloride, a salt, can dry out roadside vegetation and even cause tree death. She would soon set out to bring this trade-off to light, sparking a two-year-long battle with her community over the health hazards of dust — and how best to keep a drought-stricken mountain town safe from the threat of wildfire and the downsides of tourism.

This past Labor Day weekend, DeLoe, her engineer husband, Matt, and their three young daughters led me around the side of their cabin, where they live when the girls are not in school in Las Vegas, to their forested backyard. Every few seconds, an ATV loaded with thrill-seekers and American flags zoomed into view along a network of hilly trails, leaving behind plumes of fine dirt. Over nearly 40 summers spent at the cabin, DeLoe has watched these paths multiply and widen.

In DeLoe’s view, the aspens, pines and white firs alongside the roads have grown increasingly stressed and dried-out. “I’d stop on my runs and kind of measure it out in my mind, how far these dying trees were back from the roadside,” DeLoe had told me over the phone a few days before my visit. “At the time I didn’t really know about the mag chloride.”

Although that day in June was the first the DeLoes had heard of it, magnesium chloride has been added, layer by layer, to dirt roads in many locations throughout Duck Creek for more than a decade. The area has fewer than 300 full-time residents, but it can attract 25,000 visitors on a holiday weekend, according to Fire Chief Chris Rieffer. As the construction of more rental cabins and a pandemic boom in recreation tourism have given way to busier roads, residents, particularly those with health conditions, struggled to avoid being choked by dust. Some took it upon themselves to fund and coordinate annual treatments on roads in a majority of the 14 wooded neighborhoods. “Come up here on a dusty day,” resident Sam Stadtlander told me over the phone. “It’s at levels so thick that if there’s no breeze, it hangs up in the air and you can’t breathe without coughing and wheezing.”

Stadtlander co-owns the Cedar Mountain Country Store in Duck Creek Village. In years past, she has helped organize the magnesium chloride spray on central dirt roads lined by ATV rental lots and real estate offices. “In an area that makes its economics off of people enjoying the outdoors, we need the dust control,” Stadtlander told me this spring. “It’s been an ongoing source of contention.” What she doesn’t understand is why the county isn’t paying for it. “They give out more building permits and encourage tourism that creates more traffic,” she said, “but then they put the bill for dust control in our pocket.”

Duck Creek homeowners Erin and Matt DeLoe track tree damage on their property after the application of magnesium chloride to nearby dirt roads Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo by Chris Caldwell/Spectrum & Daily News)

And it doesn’t come cheap. With an annual market value of about $300 million, according to a report funded by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 (the last year for which figures are publicly available), and application charges around $4,000 per mile of road, dust control is big business for companies like Dustbusters.

Meanwhile, federal fire suppression costs to taxpayers have risen tenfold since the mid-1980s, and salt-killed dry brush along roadsides — the kind of brush that scientists say could result from applying magnesium chloride — ignites easily. The Cedar Mountain Fire Protection District, which serves the Duck Creek area, predicts a 20 percent increase in fire calls in 2021 over the 94 they received in 2020, according to Deputy Fire Chief Adam Scott. Record-setting drought conditions and low fuel moisture have resulted in an “almost 100 percent start rate from just a spark,” he said. In June, the lightning-sparked Mammoth Creek fire just down the road from the fire station spread to 566 acres in only a few hours, forcing residents of two nearby neighborhoods to evacuate. “It’s exponential,” said Scott. “The faster the fuel dries out, the trees and everything, that’s how we’re getting the faster fires.”

Duck Creek Village isn’t the only community with these problems. As of 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimated that there are 1.2 million miles of unpaved public roads in the United States. According to the 2004 EPA-funded report, 25 percent of unpaved roads were treated with a chemical dust suppressant at the time. “Vegetation adjacent to the area where dust suppressants are applied could be impacted by airborne dust suppressants,” reads the report, titled “Potential Environmental Impacts of Dust Suppressants: ‘Avoiding Another Times Beach.’ ” (Times Beach, Mo., became a Superfund site after a dioxin-contaminated waste oil was used on its streets in the early 1970s for dust control.) “This includes browning of trees along roadways and stunted growth. These effects will vary since different plants have different tolerances.”

In the mid-2000s, plant pathologist Betsy Goodrich, now with the U.S. Forest Service, researched impacts on trees of magnesium chloride used as dust control. Goodrich found elevated chloride levels in the leaves of trees up to 300 feet from the road, especially those along the downslope paths of water runoff. “The effects of salt on roadside soils and vegetation are well documented,” Goodrich told me. “There are studies back to the 1960s that were looking at roadside tree health and its connection to de-icing salts. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the effects of salts can be detrimental to roadside vegetation.” In response, the two Colorado counties she studied switched to using more environmentally friendly options. These products are still chloride-based, but they require less spray to achieve the same result and advertise the inclusion of a bonding polymer that helps keep the spray from running off the roads.

Road crews apply a Magnesium Chloride solution on Swains Creek Road near Duck Creek Tuesday, July 13, 2021. (Photo by Chris Caldwell/Spectrum & Daily News)
Road crews apply a Magnesium Chloride solution on Swains Creek Road near Duck Creek Tuesday, July 13, 2021. While some residents welcome the widespread dust control method others have raised concerns over environmental impact. (Photo by Chris Caldwell/Spectrum & Daily News)
Magnesium Chloride solution on Swains Creek Road, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. (Photo by Chris Caldwell/Spectrum & Daily News)

On another part of Cedar Mountain — the tree-inspired name given to this part of southern Utah, which includes Duck Creek — Mary Rossiter shares the DeLoes’ concerns. The retired nurse, who uses supplemental oxygen to help her breathe at altitude, worries not only about the health implications of magnesium chloride ending up in the dust her asthmatic grandson inhales, but also about how the added salt might harm trees, wildlife and stream water quality. “The dust is always flying,” Rossiter said. “And the mag chloride is really only a temporary fix even in the same year. I’m worried about the trees, because I do see a lot of dead trees.”

From her lofted cabin porch, Rossiter directed my attention to a cattle guard across the dirt road just past her property, where the neighborhood dust control services stop. The difference in dust kicked up by passing traffic on either side of the barrier made it clear: Magnesium chloride works. But is it worth it?

Stadtlander thinks so. After 16 years of its use in town, she sees no evidence that trees are suffering. “I certainly don’t want to kill trees, but I don’t want to kill people either,” she said. “I worry more about the visibility aspect from the high traffic. It’s just constant clouds of thick dust.”

Indeed, dust from unpaved roads is listed as a source of particle pollution by the EPA. It can enter the lungs and even the bloodstreams of those living nearby and lead to decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, nonfatal heart attacks and, in some cases, premature death. But dust particles generally belong to a size category not regulated under national air quality standards.

Visibility is also a real concern. Wade Wilkey, who has worked for the local Kane County Road Department for 22 years, believes that expanding the use of magnesium chloride on dirt roads will ease a rise in traffic accidents caused by billowing dust obscuring drivers’ lines of sight. “That dust just rolls right up onto Highway 14,” Wilkey said. “And it’s just a major hazard.”

For Erin DeLoe, the issue is all about trees. Shortly after she learned about the salt treatment, DeLoe got out a bucket of red paint and started labeling trees in her yard. She and Matt took leaf samples from five trees next to the road and two as controls much farther away. They mailed them to labs at Colorado State University and in Dodge City, Kansas, and paid $378 to have them tested for chloride content.

As we walked along the dirt roadway in front of their home last fall, Matt DeLoe showed me a small pine tree growing about 20 feet off the shoulder. The evergreen sagged to one side, its sparse needles entirely browned. “The chloride level in this tree is about 37,000 percent higher than a ponderosa pine at the back of our property,” he said.

The DeLoes contacted Bryan Hopkins, a professor in the College of Life Sciences at Brigham Young University and a certified professional soil scientist, who told them that, yes, this level is extreme. “It’s possible that they’re just overdoing it, putting too much magnesium chloride down,” Hopkins told me later. “But it’s pretty obvious that’s what the problem is in this area.”

Both magnesium and chloride are essential nutrients that occur naturally and are used by plants, Hopkins explained. But “too much of a good thing can become a bad thing,” he said, and excess quantities of salt cause leaves to wither and die. “I have observed hundreds of situations with dead or injured plants from applications along sidewalks and roadways where salts, such as magnesium chloride, are used for melting ice or dust control,” Hopkins said. “It can kill plants if it’s not applied correctly. We just don’t have enough water in Utah to move salts out of the soil.”

Armed with this evidence, in August 2020, the DeLoes decided to approach the Kane County commissioners on behalf of their trees. They learned that, starting in 2022, dust control was to be handled by the county’s Cedar Mountain Fire Protection District. Surely, they thought, given increasingly devastating wildfires that ravage the forested dry West each summer, the fire district would want to prioritize keeping trees from drying out. But they say that, for months, they got no meaningful response from county commissioner and fire district board member Wade Heaton, who also ignored my repeated requests for comment.

So, the DeLoes started talking more and more to their neighbors about trees — and their neighbors started talking to each other about the DeLoes. On the community Facebook page where Erin DeLoe, who went by her initials only and didn’t share a photo of her face, described their concerns and lab results, neighbors started calling her the “Tree Man” and mocking her attempts to protect nature over progress. Then the DeLoes’ address was posted on the community Facebook page; soon after, ATVs began to accelerate past their house, kicking up extra dust. “On social media people will go back-and-forth about it,” said Stadtlander, who thinks the whole issue is overblown. “It sounds to me like they just want to complain.”

ATVs on untreated dirt roads and trails generate clouds of dust near homes in Duck Creek Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo by Chris Caldwell/Spectrum & Daily News)
Clouds of dust near homes in Duck Creek Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. The use of Magnesium Chloride to curb the dust from increasing traffic has been a point of contention among residents. (Photo by Chris Caldwell/Spectrum & Daily News)

Disappointed by the lack of support for their cause, the DeLoes contacted Road Solutions, a contractor for Dustbusters that does the local spraying, to request that at least their street be spared from magnesium chloride treatment. Their cul-de-sac sees relatively little traffic anyway, they say, and the bigger problem near them is dust from ATV trails that isn’t being addressed. After I contacted Road Solutions for comment, Dustbusters Enterprises Vice President Nathan Prete replied over email: “There are always costs associated with introducing additional substances into an environment. Many studies have been conducted to assess the costs involved with treatments. The consensus among a broad cross-section of entities is that treatment for dust is necessary to protect not only the health of citizens but also other animals and the environment. Without treatment, airborne dust particles can be inhaled.” He added that he’d spoken with Matt DeLoe about their preference to forgo treatment near their property: “While we sympathize with Mr. DeLoe’s concern for his trees, our primary concern is with the health and safety of the general public.”

The DeLoes think there must be another way to manage dust and public health: They want the fire district to consider alternative products such as the plant-based dust suppressant lignosulfonate. The product, the EPA suggests, might be preferable in agricultural areas because of known risks to crops from magnesium chloride, though it may not hold up as well under high traffic conditions.

Rossiter would also like to see other products considered, but she thinks a better solution might be for the county to pave heavily trafficked dirt roads. When the fire district announced its intent to take over coordinating all dust control services, Rossiter, like the DeLoes, contacted board member Heaton to express her concern about magnesium chloride and request that her road be exempted from treatment. She says he agreed to follow up but never did; her road was sprayed anyway. She and her husband recently decided to give up on the Duck Creek cabin they built in 2013 and find a vacation spot at a lower elevation. “The county, the people that give the approvals for it, I don’t feel like they’re doing as much as they should do to make sure everyone is on board,” Rossiter says. “I feel there are some really legitimate concerns [about magnesium chloride], but people are so worried about the dust that they don’t think about what this could be doing long term.”

Kane County did step up to address the problem — but not how the DeLoes or Rossiter may have wished: In summer 2021, officials agreed to grade, or mechanically smooth the dirt surfaces of, more roads in preparation for treatment by Road Solutions trucks.

Duck Creek resident Mary Rossiter discusses dirt road traffic near her home and the health impacts of dust prevalent in the area Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo by Chris Caldwell/Spectrum & Daily News)

On a cloudy Tuesday morning this past July, Wilkey supervised the first-ever magnesium chloride application to a particular subdivision-access road from his white Kane County Road Department truck. He talked with locals as they passed, reminding them to get their cars washed so the sprayed salts don’t corrode their vehicles. On select main, public roads, this project has been a priority of his for the past 20 years, he told me. He believes in Dustbusters’ product. He has heard the concerns about it killing trees, but he doesn’t put much stock in that. “If you apply a lot of product to a tree, it will kill it,” he said. “It takes a lot of direct contact to do it. There’s a lot of these roads up here that we’ve been mag-ing for 20 years now. There’s maybe three dead trees that I can point out and say, ‘I think mag had a part to do with that.’ ”

This summer, Road Solutions applied magnesium chloride to 45 miles of dirt roads across Kane County. The morning after the spray on that cloudy July day, a heavy monsoonal rain washed over Cedar Mountain, carrying a portion of those fresh, unsettled salts downhill off the roads. Ten days later, the Cedar Mountain Fire Protection District held a public hearing to discuss cost and which product it would use when it takes over dust control services in 2022. As had come to be expected, the DeLoes attended and Erin asked to speak.

Her voice shook with frustration as she addressed those gathered in person and over Zoom. She’d been pouring her heart and soul into this fight for more than a year. She’d consulted experts, gathered her own evidence, educated her community, called her representatives.

But when the votes were cast, she lost. In 2022, it was decided, every lot would be assessed a mandatory $100 special service district fee for magnesium chloride application. With 3,030 lots in the district, the budget for dust control would exceed $300,000. The district acknowledged concerns about trees but concluded that any other option was simply cost prohibitive.

Erin DeLoe spent the next day in bed with a migraine. Matt and the girls ate lunch, then went outside to check on a bird’s nest. A month before, Matt had to cut down a sickly aspen tree that loomed too close over where the girls played. No one noticed the chickadee nest in an upper branch until it fell to the ground. Two of the chicks didn’t make it, but the five humans had carefully attached the branch with the four surviving fledglings to another tree in their yard, hoping that nature might accept that solution.

Erin hopes to continue the fight. Her family might consider legal action or build a berm to direct runoff away from their trees. But in June, the chickadee parents returned to nurture their young in the new tree. And the DeLoes all took that as a very good sign.

Joan Meiners is an environmental reporter the Spectrum & Daily News through the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America national service program. Follow Meiners on Twitter.

A version of this story appeared on WASHINGTON POST on November 30, 2021