By Ry Rivard
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration will now study the damage road salt does to property and the environment, the first step in curbing a mounting threat to the Adirondack Park’s wilderness and people.
Late Wednesday night, the governor signed a law aimed at reining in the 300 million pounds of salt dumped each year in the Adirondack Park to clear roads for fast-moving vehicles.
Local lawmakers and environmental groups have been pushing the idea since last year. The law creates a task force and directs state transportation, public health and environmental officials all to help with a three-year study that will test new ways to manage roads in the winter. Whether the law will do what they hope remains to be seen.
Because of the the way salt is dumped and spread, much of it runs off into nearby streams, lakes and groundwater. Salt helps beat back snow and ice but its chemical properties also corrode metal and harm plants and animals. In a high enough dose, salt is dangerous to human health — it raises blood pressure and leads to heart attacks, strokes and kidney disease.
This year, an investigation by the Adirondack Explorer detailed how salt damaged property and contaminated drinking water, as well as how state officials have for years avoided responsibility for causing such damage.
The law creates a 14-member group to hold public hearings, investigate the damage already done by road salt and come up with new guidelines for highway departments, including the state Department of Transportation. The bill expects the task force to spend three years on the job, wrapping up its work by the end of 2024.
It also directs state highway officials to vary how much salt they apply and how often, and then environmental regulators to monitor nearby waters.
The bill would also require the group to recommend changes to how road workers clear roads each winter in the Adirondacks.
The legislation was unveiled last winter in Saranac Lake by Sen. Betty Little, Assemblyman Billy Jones and Assemblyman Dan Stec (who this fall was elected to replace the retiring Little in the Senate). Their push follows years of research by the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute about the damage salt does to the environmental and the groundwater supplies that many of New York’s rural residents drill private wells to drink. The bill was named in honor of the late Randy Preston, the former Wilmington town supervisor who argued against excess salt use in the region.
“The problem is identified,” said Dan Kelting, the head of the watershed institute who began researching road salt problems in the region over a decade ago. “Now we need to fix it.”
The Adirondack Council, which lobbied hard for the bill to pass and be signed by Cuomo, put out a statement on behalf of Kelting and others who had pushed for the bill.
“We should have safe roads and clean water,” the council’s executive director, Willie Janeway said. “Corrosive, salty water is bad for everything it touches: lakes, rivers, fish, roads, cars, bridges, driveways, pumps, plumbing, and people.”
Brittany Christenson of AdkAction has for years focused on the people with salty water who live downhill from state roads. She called that salt contamination a “costly crisis” for families that have to buy bottled water, drill new wells and replace expensive appliances — all without much help from the state that likely caused the damage.
One rough estimate, by the team of Virginia Tech researchers who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, found nearly a half-million New Yorkers drink from wells that could be contaminated by salt, though researchers admitted their guess was on the high end.
State legislators approved the salt bill this summer, but it didn’t reach the governor until Nov. 20.
The cause of the holdup remained unclear. The pandemic and economic fallout derailed one of the governor’s big environmental priorities this year, including a $3 billion “Mother Nature” bond to fund projects that would prepare parts of the state for climate change. Though the pandemic has kept him busy, he’s has also signed lesser bills, like one honoring veterans by renaming a stretch of state highway near the Town of Wappinger.
In the months of waiting for Cuomo to act, local environmental groups grew impatient and put out a series of press releases and statements urging the governor to sign the bill. Others, including Bill Owens, a former congressman from Plattsburgh who once thought about suing the state for the damage done by road salt, also joined in the chorus urging Cuomo to sign the bill.
Ultimately, though, the bill does not solve the problem, it merely requires an extensive study.
Before the governor signed the bill, some other environmental activists wondered if the study is the best approach to an issue with known solutions.
“Why do we need to study it when we know how to solve it?” said Eric Siy, the executive director of the Fund for Lake George. His group has paid to help local highway departments use less salt and better plows to keep roads safe without polluting the lake.