ALBANY — While road salt is designed to keep the traffic moving in winter, some of it ends up washing into lakes and streams, contaminating drinking water supplies.
For years, environmental groups have pressed for alternative ways to address icy roads. But state and local governments have been slow to part company with salt because it accomplishes its mission.
Now, though, newly approved legislation championed by a coalition of environmental groups establishes a salt-reduction pilot project in the Adirondack Park, with a task force at the helm. The goal is to maintain the focus on keeping roads safe while also protecting public health.
The recommendations expected to flow from the task force in 2024 could lead to wider acceptance of alternatives to road salt throughout New York, said Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, and John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, an advocacy group for the 6 million acre park.
“I have been in homes that have really been damaged by road salt,” said Jones. “It gets into water wells and people end up without drinking water. They can’t use it to wash their clothes. They can’t use it to wash the dishes.”
New York uses more salt on roads than any other state, and a good deal of it - an estimated 190,000 tons - is dropped on roads in the Adirondacks each year.
Switching to sand would create its own problems, including the fact that it often ends up in the beds of streams used by trout for reproduction, Sheehan noted.
The use of salt has been destructive to aquatic vegetation, insects and invertebrates, he added.
When the salt accumulates in lakes and ponds, Sheehan said, “You usually wind up with a nasty algae bloom and a real mess in terms of water quality. It can really effect the whole ecosystem.”
NAMED FOR LOCAL SUPERVISOR
State roads are plowed and salted by the state Department of Transportation. In 2018, the agency began what it describes as an innovative pilot project to address road salt concerns in the vicinity of Mirror Lake and Lake George.
On roads that are part of the study, brine is being spread for pre-storm anti-icing. Equipment is also being used to track salt application rates. While the study remains incomplete, the agency has signaled it will look at ways to reduce salt without raising risks for motorists.
The state agency, in a statement released by its spokesman, Glenn Blain, said it uses “state-of-art salt spreading procedures and equipment; and we make sure all of the equipment is calibrated routinely throughout the snow and ice season to ensure it is applying salt at the prescribed rates.”
The legislation, which has been signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is named in honor of Randy Preston, the late Wilmington town supervisor. He had crusaded for years for stronger protections to the Adirondacks from road salt.
Environmental groups said state Sens. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, and Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, had key roles in getting the bill approved.
Sheehan explained that streams become saltier in the summer when salt leaches into groundwater. Heavy metal and other toxins end up being released into the environment from sources that have become contaminated by salt, he said.
‘IT COULD BE YOUR HOME NEXT’
As salt leaches into groundwater, it is making streams saltier in the summer and is releasing heavy metals and other toxins from sources that would otherwise remain harmless, the Watershed Institute’s tests have shown.
“The salt is corroding the pipes in people’s homes, causing lead and copper to leach out, similar to what was happening in Flint, Michigan,” he said.
Jones said the state government bears much of the responsibility for the environmental damage, since its trucks maintain state roads.
“To anyone who might be apprehensive about a study such as this, I would say: That could be your home next,” Jones said. “That’s how serious this is. It affects everyone.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.