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Toronto's $800,000 weapon against winter
The city's new fire-breathing behemoth will gobble up the salt-spiked snow that usually melts into -- and pollutes -- the Don River
By Jeff Gray
The Globe and Mail
Published December 11th, 2004

You could call it Snowzilla -- an $800,000 fire-breathing monster the size of a tractor-trailer. Instead of descending upon the city to wreak havoc, however, this behemoth is being shipped here from its Nova Scotia birthplace to battle mounds of snow, just in time for winter.

"It's a wicked machine," boasts Terry Dwyer, a salesman for Trecan Combustion Ltd., Nova Scotia-based manufacturer of the 350-PD, which can dissolve about 300 tonnes of the white stuff an hour.

"In a nutshell, you're getting a huge hot-water tank on wheels," Mr. Dwyer explains. " It just eats the snow and turns it to water."

Its main target is the ugly mountains of filthy black snow that build beneath the Bloor Street viaduct, where mounds that would otherwise be blocking downtown streets are dumped.

Sometimes five storeys high and full of pollutants and road salt, these mountains next to the Don River (there is also a site along the Humber River) have long had environmentalists up in arms. After a blizzard, salt levels in the Don rival the waters of the ocean, says Kevin Mercer, executive director of the environmental group Riversides.

While this has helped saltwater-loving transplanted Pacific salmon thrive, Mr. Mercer says, it has hurt other aquatic life. Even worse are the high levels of heavy metals and oil that come off the bottoms of our cars and end up in the snow.

After Toronto's "send-in-the-army" snowstorm of 1999, one of the mighty snow mountains lasted well into the summer, Mr. Mercer recalls, melting to reveal mounds of garbage and grit scraped off the roads the previous winter.

"All the trees around the perimeter of the site are dead," he says.

Under pressure from the city's Bring Back the Don task force to phase out the use of these riverside snow dumps, the city has decided to try out Snowzilla, which will sit along the lakeshore and dump the water it creates -- unfortunately still laden with salt and heavy metals -- into the western beaches sewage tunnel, which will carry it out into Lake Ontario.

Gary Welsh, the city's director of transportation services, says he hopes to put in place measures on the Don dump sites, such as retention ponds to collect the heavy grit and trash before it gets into the ecosystem. While studies have shown little difference in salt content between water upriver from the snow dumps and water downriver, he says the city knows road salt is bad for the environment.

That's why his department is also testing alternative, and more expensive, de-icing substances to try to reduce the city's addiction to salt. This year, trucks will spray up to a million litres of brine or salty water, which allows less salt to be used. Other trucks will try using sugar-beet extract and a corn byproduct mixed with magnesium chloride.

But Mr. Welsh warns that despite the new melter, he isn't ready to abandon the snow-dump sites along the Don just yet. Although it can handle 12,000 truckloads of snow over two weeks, he needs space for 150,000 truckloads this winter. So while the hope is that the new machine will continue to enjoy a diet of less-salty snow, and perhaps one day be joined by other massive melters, those mountains won't disappear altogether.

"There's basically no vacant land in the downtown suitable for snow-disposal sites," Mr. Welsh says.

Let it snow: The 350-PD snowmelter

This 15-metre-long monster machine has a liquid-cooled six-cylinder turbo diesel engine that uses up to 1,500 litres an hour, the equivalent of more than 100 Ford Excursion SUVs driving at 100 kilometres an hour. While the city hopes that melting the snow will reduce pollution in the Don River, it will do little for the city's air quality.

At full tilt, the machine squirts 5,300 litres of water a minute, at an estimated temperature of 3C, out two pipes.

Front-end loaders dump snow into the unit's 28,000 litre tank, where four powerful hot-air burners melt a guaranteed 275 tonnes an hour with 56-million BTUs of heat, the equivalent of 800 home furnaces.

The fuel tank holds 11,356 litres of fuel, or about as much as 190 pickup trucks.

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