State seeks salt reduction. Can it change fast enough?
By Ry Rivard
Ahead of the 1980 Winter Olympics, local officials decided they had to fight one of the very things drawing people to Lake Placid from around the world—the snow.
To ease the commute through the Adirondacks, they kept roadways clear by dumping unprecedented amounts of salt on them.
The Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee’s plan called for about six times as much salt to be used that winter as in winters past.
Olympic organizers knew this could be a problem, but they expected the salting to be a one-and-done thing. Clear the roads for the tens of thousands of people traveling here for the first time, then go back to the way things used to be.
Ironically, the snow never came. A snow drought struck in 1980. Artificial snow was used for the first time at an Olympics.
But the idea to salt the roads stuck, and the salting never stopped.
Before then, Adirondack roads weren’t cleared all the way to the blacktop every time it snowed. People drove slower. They had snow tires. Highway departments put sand on top of snow to increase traction.
Heavy salting could cause long-term environmental damage, the U.S. Department of Commerce wrote in an environmental study for the Olympics. That 200-page document from summer 1978 is one of the few accessible pieces of paperwork left that confirms what many old-timers remember: The Olympics. That’s when the salting began.
The chemical properties of salt help it fight off snow and ice but harm metal, meaning salt can ruin cars, appliances and plumbing. At high enough levels in drinking water, salt is dangerous to human health. It raises blood pressure and leads to heart attacks, strokes and kidney disease.
Before the 1980 Games began, officials worried about all of this. Roadside plants might die from too much salt. Lakes might choke on too much salt. Salt could run into drinking water supplies.
It may have taken years, but that’s all happened now. Road salt helped kill 90-year-old birch trees along Cascade Lakes on the way to Lake Placid, according to a state-funded report by the Clarkson Center for the Environment. Salt now makes conditions in Mirror Lake, the lake that runs along downtown Lake Placid, dangerous for trout.
And, as the Adirondack Explorer has reported over the past year, salt has seeped into drinking water supplies, made water unsafe to use and threatened people with financial ruin.
By 2015, the Fund for Lake George, a nonprofit watchdog for the lake that anchors one of the country’s desirable lakefront property markets, said salt was “the acid rain of our time.”
Now, years later, the state may get serious about the problem.
In early December, Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved a bill that would require the state to form a task force to study the damage done by salt in the Adirondacks.
“Road salt application, while necessary for public safety, can also pose a risk to the public health and environment when used improperly or to excess,” Cuomo said in a statement when he signed the bill, which was backed by Adirondack lawmakers and pushed by local environmental groups.
The new law isn’t the first stab at trying to understand the damage. The New York State Department of Transportation has conducted a string of pilot projects going back nearly 40 years looking at ways to reduce salt use, including a few recently in the Adirondacks.
But those haven’t resulted in wholesale changes to how it clears roads.
Perhaps that’s because New York law insulates highway officials who are to blame.
Perhaps it’s because the clear roads that were promised ahead of the Olympics became a gold standard for public safety that’s hard to back away from. Want two-day delivery? Salt. Want to jump in the car for a quick trip to Plattsburgh in the middle of February? Salt. Want tourists in their little sedans to come spend money in Keene Valley? Salt.
Now, the department “looks forward to working with the task force to explore new ways to balance public safety, the environment and public health in the Adirondack Park,” DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said in an email.
To others, those ways have been explored and the path is clear: Want to use less salt safely? Use less salt now.
Kevin Hajos, the superintendent of Warren County’s public works department, is treating 100 miles of roads with a saltwater brine and using more advanced plows that do a better job clearing roads. The brine is less salty than pure salt and it doesn’t immediately bounce off the road into nearby streams, like salt crystals dumped from the back of a truck do.
“We’re so far ahead of where the state is at this right now,” Hajos said.
He has been helped along the way by Phill Sexton, a consultant who has become the go-to person for reducing salt pollution in the North Country.
Before he founded his consulting business, WIT Advisers, Sexton left a job helping lead one of the largest snow removal companies in the country and went to Harvard to study salt.
There, Sexton wrote a thesis about the “quiet yet significant environmental epidemic” of salt pollution.
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Now, Sexton tries to get highway departments and snow removal contractors to use less salt. In phone conversations over the past year, he can be both abstract and practical. One minute, he’ll compare the arms race for clear pavement to the greening of American lawns over the past half-century.
A few minutes later, he’ll talk about hopping in a snowplow at 2 a.m. to do things the right way.
To curb salt use, brine and plows help, but people need to change, like Hajos’ crews are.
“There’s been a lot of focus on the plows and the brine and the measuring technology, which they’re all great, but they’re just tools,” Sexton said.
A lot of Sexton’s work has been around Lake George for the Fund for Lake George. Working with the Town of Hague, they cut salt use by a quarter and saved the town $66,000 a year.
Lately, he has met with officials in Lake Placid, where it all began.
There, salt is threatening the health of Mirror Lake. The amount of salt in the lake has hurt the lake’s ability to mix, which makes it harder for fish to survive there and may be partially responsible for an outbreak of harmful algae that appeared in the lake this fall.
While much of the focus has pointed the blame at DOT, there’s good reason to think the state is merely part of the problem. Around Mirror Lake, there’s more pavement in parking lots, sidewalks and driveways than state roads.
Sexton said that means it can’t all be the state’s fault. He pins blame on slip and fall lawsuits, which scared business owners into applying too much salt on their property. He said parking lots are now white from salt, not snow. That’s too much. He worked with Wegmans markets to safely cut salt use in half, saving the company money without endangering customers.
State transportation officials apparently believe there’s a lot of salt in parking lots, too. When Cuomo signed the salt study bill in December, he released a memo that said after “extensive discussions,” he had signed it on the condition that lawmakers tell the task force to “consider all sources of road salt contamination,” not just state road crews’ salt.
Just because they might agree on this, though, Sexton doesn’t give DOT a pass. Instead, he wonders why lawmakers, some environmental groups and the governor are still waiting to study a problem that has simple solutions.
“Everything they’ve wanted to study, we’ve done over the last five years,” Sexton said. “Why would you want to start that all over again?”
Salt is woven into New York’s history, for better and worse. Some of the early, contested and broken treaties between European settlers and Native Americans involved access to salt supplies around Syracuse. Today, New York is the nation’s third largest salt producer. Each year, the state generates some 17 billion pounds of salt worth about $600 million. The salt is used for all kinds of things, not just roads.
The proximity of large salt supplies to New York highways may have made it easier for salt to become the road chemical of choice two centuries later.
Around the Northeast and across the rest of New York, the clear trend has been to clear roads by dumping ton after ton of salt on them.
Even if the Olympics hadn’t sped up changes in the Adirondacks, New York had adopted a policy of clearing certain roads with salt in the early 1970s.
The sand that highway departments relied on before they switched to salt had its own problems. It might contain phosphorous, which also triggers algae blooms when sand washes into streams. Sand piles up, causing labor-intensive cleanups each spring. And, ultimately, sand doesn’t work as well as salt.
The switch in the Adirondacks mirrored national trends. In the 1970s, highway departments across the world began to abandon the “brute force” method of clearing roads, which relied on sanding roads and scraping them with plow blades, according to “Sustainable Winter Road Operations,” one of the few textbooks on the subject.
The textbook’s editor, Xianming Shi, is an engineering professor at Washington State University who views salt as a generational dilemma. To drive 50 miles per hour now on winter highways safely, our grandkids might have to drink salty water.
He said few highway departments have systematically tried to change how they treat roads in sensitive areas, like the Adirondacks.
“I have tried to convince agencies to use technology to facilitate such a practice, without success thus far,” he said in an email.
Using salt isn’t an unreasonable thing to do. The Adirondacks’ unique combination of weather and infrastructure lend themselves to it, said Nick Bassill, a meteorologist at the University at Albany who has provided weather forecasting to public agencies, including DOT.
Bassill said better use of forecasts could help reduce salt use. For instance, salt shouldn’t be applied before the rainy part of a rain-snow mix. Forecasts can also project if snow will stick or melt and whether it may even be too cold for salt to be useful.
But there are a lot about conditions in the Adirondacks that invites salt use. Even though it’s rural, people are coming from far away to visit.
And the Adirondacks are unlike some other tourist spots. Unlike Colorado where snow melts quickly in towns east of the Rockies, snow here could stick for days after it falls. In the Ozarks, there may be long spells of winter weather, but they still only take up 10 or 20 days of the year. In the Adirondacks, winter may be half the year.
“We’re not necessarily doing anything that’s worse than other places,” Bassill said. “But we’re in a place that really brings out anything bad that happens, and really accentuates it.”
We had .6 inches in Lake Placid last week. During my daily commute that morning, an 18 wheeler was hopelessly stuck spinning it’s wheels and backing up traffic on the intersection of Sentinel and Main Street. I watched two vehicles lock up their brakes and skid through the 5 way intersection by the Fire Department. All of this is to say that there is no question that the roads are now less safe. I can’t wait for the DMV stats comparing the rate of accidents before and after the salt ban. Once those are complied, I hope it would be impossible for a municipality to continue with this feel good nonsense.
Roads can’t be made “safe”. Motorists have to drive safely, regardless of conditions.
Well until its a problem in all of New Yorkers own back yard is when there minds will change
And its really a shame how the environment has to suffer the consequences over all
John (Scooter) Wetmore says
It seems more and more we are examining the balance between nature and the expectations of modern lifestyle. My grandmother talked about a time when a winter storm meant leaving the car at home and taking a team of horses and a sleigh into town. In later years, a winter storm meant putting tire chains on and very slow driving. Today’s expectation is that normal speed limits should be possible, winter weather or not.
Because of the pandemic, I started looking at death rates from all kinds of things to compare to that from the Covid-19 situation. It turns out that a person’s chance of dying in a car crash is one in 103. Thinking about this, I looked at the measures that the American people have been willing to put up with to lower the death rate from the virus and then wondered if they would be willing to change their transportation preferences to save lives. In New York the speed limit is 55 most places and 65 on the major highways. Suppose we were to take the speed limit to 40 miles per hour? What would that do to the death rate? Well if we go a step further, suppose we do away with cars totally and go back to horses. The death rate would be reduced astronomically. Of course, the public would never accept such a sacrifice and is willing to live with the one in 103 chance of dying. What is the right number? I think people become accustomed to lifestyle standards and then a change is painful in either direction. Slow change is likely the best way to go so that people don’t notice it. Maybe a small percentage reduction of salt would allow most traffic to continue as normal and phase in the reduction over several years. Maybe in the future as people are putting on their tire chains for a trip to town, they could tell their grandchildren about a time when we poisoned the planet for the convenience of summer road conditions all year long. Perhaps this would be met with the same amazement I had from my grandmother’s stories about switching to horses when things got bad. I should also mention that when my mother attended high school, she had to rent a room in town because the ten mile distance to home was just too far to travel every day.
I grew up in a time when modern things made life easier, faster, and bigger. If we have weeds, we can just spray them away until we find out this new labor saver gives us cancer. If we have medical issues, we have pills, until we find out that these kill us in worse ways. Cigarettes were very cool and everyone smoked until we discovered that this would kill us. We seem to live in a time when anything new is not only accepted but given priority over the traditional until we find the truth. Our society demonizes those who want to slow down change and look to history and tradition for guidance instead of accepting change quickly.
I’m a firm believer that salting the roads makes them more difficult to drive on due to the slush that is created. I find it much easier to drive on fresh snow, to a certain depth, than to drive on the slush. Let’s do it like Quebec and have mandatory snow tires laws and maybe use some of the salt savings to subsidized the tires for lower income people.
David Froehlich says
I’m all for less salt. I’d like to buy a vehicle and have it last more than 10 years. I live in Northern NY and have snow tires on my 4×4 tacoma. It makes all the difference from the all seasons I have on in the summer. 4×4 isn’t going to save you if you don’t have traction and salt can’t always guarantee that. Our northern neighbors in Ontario have to run snow tires in the winter. Ideally, the money saved by spreading less salt could go to a snow tire rebate for those who can’t afford them.
Jacqueline L Fifield says
I hope you think twice about cutting salt out, salt is much more safer on the roads in the winter time here. Let’s save lives and let people die naturally.
How about requiring real winter tires for vehicles that don’t have 4WD or AWD? Not necessarily studded, although we all used studded tires 50 years ago on our rear wheel drive station wagons. Cars are rusting faster than ever now.
John S. Sipos says
It’s a shame how much salt is spread
on our roads here in northern N.Y.
I’m near 70 yrs old and remember
when very little salt was used, and
that was used just in villages and in town. You had real snow tires then,
not these so called (all season).
We were very rural and I remember
Pa putting tire chains on the pu truck and they stayed on all winter. Rural
roads were hard pack snow with
ruts. Well,with winters milder and
equipment more efficient, cut back
on the heavy salting of our roads
and land . Slow down on our roads,
you’ll get there just a few minutes
later and safe. !!!!!
Donald F Woodcock says
Using so much salt isn’t only bad for the environment but doesn’t do our overpriced motor vehicles any good either. I had 10 beautiful maple trees in my front yard that were next to the roadside that ended up being killed by the road salt . It was very painful for me to see the state finally cut them all down. These trees were planted by my family members. This property has been in the family since the 1830’s. The day that they cut the trees down, I left the premises for the whole day.
People need to slow down and let the roads go back to hard pack like in the old days !
Dan Aldous says
This is more of a want then a need! People want to drive faster and don’t want to buy actual snow tires….so make the roads snow/ice free!!! People want to walk across parking lots in dress shoes because its too much of a hassle to wear snow boots and then change. Yes people want to be safe…..but being safe starts with you!! Put studded tires on your vehicle….wear appropriate clothing/boots…allow extra time to travel both walking and driving. Your safety should not compromise the safety of the environment that most people pretend they care about until they slide off the road because they are traveling too fast and blame road crews for not putting enough salt on the road.
Joe Cashin says
I have been in the winter liquids business for 10+ years, and I can assure you that Salt brine is a limited tool. Salt in any form is salt. Salt brine should not be used below 23F. This is ground temperature and not air temperature. Other liquids can be more effective, save more money, and equate to less salt being introduced into the environment. Most salt brine savings numbers are greatly overstated. The company I work for can help. We help towns, DOTs and Cities save money and use less salt every winter. We have been doing this for 30+ years as a company. There are many different methods, not just one silver bullet.
Boreas, you should know by now that in this day and age that people will not tolerate being told what to do! How dare they stop using such great amounts of salt, “them people” are entitled to drive as fast as they choose!
Linda Finch says
You think SALT is your major issue? Think again. I assumed that the Southern Tier region of NY had stopped sending radioactive Frack salt waste from Pennsylvania for road salting, but apparently I was incorrect. It is still being utilized while the salt study proceeds. Outrageous. That was part of why I fled that area home to the ADK….now it appears that gross industry has followed me.
Oh….please check that out and prove me wrong!
Just find an alternative to salt so we don’t kill the environment.
Until then, use less and lower the speed limits during and after storms. People don’t like it? Too bad.
Sara Vettori says
Maybe they need to take some advice from other snow filled areas. I lived in the Keweenaw of the upper peninsula in Michigan and we would get 300” of snow or more every winter.
I have lived a lot of different places and they maintained there roads like a boss. Also people who live there are prepared for it! They get snow tires, if they don’t drive a 4×4 they drive something with all wheel drive usually a Subaru.
But the roads are being plowed, cleaned, constantly. But the difference is they mix it a lot salt/regular sand, salt/stamp sand (local from mining areas) there is a way to adjust the readings on there trucks too drop more salt or sand like when they come to a intersection. Or large hills, or before the snow or rain comes… you have hard dedicated workers that know they are working all hours in winter time.
Now NY & MI have access to a lot more salt then other areas. I went to North Dakota & they use a Beet juice mix on there roads in the winter. Of course I joked about it but they use the resources they have so maybe more research into other areas also because the Keweenaw isn’t Mountains but it is a lot of hilly windy backroad areas.
And if you talk about accident count in first study well you need to realize all these people have been spoiled in the winter and need to realize what winter driving really is. I appreciate a slower winter drive it makes you appreciate your surroundings.
Just a thought towards the future winter maintenance because I would rather have trees and lakes to fish and a non rusted out Jeep with winter tires driving through a beautiful area slowly then have them put all the salt on!!!
Robert Bernard says
All season tires are for the south where the temp stays above 30. Snow tires on your car and some comin sense will get you where you need to go. you don’t need a 4wd truck to drive in the winter.
Todd Eastman says
Hard to get off the kick-backs and subsidies for the salt industry…
… big money rubbing salt in our woads!
Great article Ry!
Jess Aksin says
Salting roads leads to salt in ground water and of course surface water; lakes and rivers. Many folks beyond the range of “town water” take their water from wells. My well water has over 400 ppm sodium and over 600 ppm chloride. I don’t drink it. As Ry noted, salt in drinking water can lead to a host of health ills that are generally associated with poverty and lifestyle choices. Stroke, high blood pressure and liver failure are frequently assigned to smoking, drinking and poor diet. These are all problems that plague long time Adirondack residents and are generally attributed to lifestyle choices. Dying of salt induced health problems is hardly a natural death. In a row of three homes along a major thoroughfare, 2 out of 3 long time ADK resident women are wheel chair bound. Is this the “natural” way to go or just the sacrifice we make to keep jobs in the north country ?
Jeremy Hinsdale says
Great article. I’m glad to see the issue of road salt — and especially it’s use in the ADK — getting the thought and attention it deserves. It’s a complex challenge, but I’m optimistic that once people recognize the problems created by excessive road salt they’ll begin to take steps to mitigate its impact on their communities.
Just stumbled on another of your story. Thanks for posting it! Anyone favouring road salts and ignoring dire facts ranging from water- air- soils- pollution, ruin of most everything else, plus harming health of humans to animals is definition of legal /judicial corruption.
Among the stories on origin of using salts on roads is that in 1940’s New York State where salt mining had begun as alternative to collecting sea salt for use in processed meats and pork, salt was accidentally spilled on snow/ice which led to idea for expanding sales of rock-salts for use on roadways. At that time it was a novel and extremely rare event. It was decades before the recent 42+ years of increasingly aggressive applying salts to roadways that annually dump 25,000,000+ tons on roads in 75% of 48 US states that have snow & ice winter weather.
All of the salts be they NaCl, CaCl, KCL, MgCL, CMA, brines, urea, their blends are all corrosive and pollutants, they ruin cars trucks, roads, bridges, walks, buildings, all infrastructures.
Given the current political hot-air toward, “Infrastructure Bill” and it’s Trillions $ budget it is a huge hypocrisy in many ways do to facts that the political and judicial realms have dedicated decades to destroying our infrastructures with salts. It along with overly suffocating and very costly Red-Tape that have been barriers against upkeep of roads, bridges, and all infrastructures.
Consider the hoopla on going Green political agendas are ridiculous and and only achieve the opposite by relentless continuation of mindless consumerism funded by debts. A definition of modern slavery no matter if viewed by liberals/ progressives, or conservatives.
The business model of Wall St, Financiers, Bankers, Insurance, and all large manufacturing is PLM, promote, make, sell, obsolete, ruin, repeat,… labelled as growth to environmentally friendly. I.e., as to cars US & most First World: In 1945 10% of people had cars, by 1970 35% had cars, 2021 we are at car saturation thus 85% of population have cars. Thus car business models revolve on replacing cars sooner & sooner. Salts play a key role to ruin cars while medias (heavily funded by ads), lobbyists and politicians spew road salts are for safety. The myth of safety by road salts and ‘safe cars’ have invited and cultivated human obliviousness, recklessness, egocentric behaviours, road-rage, reduced caring courtesy and empathy, increased driving speeds. Add distractions such as on dash video screens, Iphones, iPads, in cars besides pedestrians mesmerised by them too the pied-piper is present and active 24/7.
The political & business slant to EV cars assures all the existing ones are obsolete, and is another way to force buying new cars. All the while ignoring the huge amount of energy & materials required from Raw to Ready to make cars & everything else. Too many humans have been led and embraced mindless consumerism no matter what its label. Fighting: Global Warming? Climate Change? Going Green???? Are all merely Snake Oil Sales Pitch & Medicine Shows!
Here are a couple weblinks out of hundreds that give attention to scope of ruin & pollution by road salts:
Yes, as Boreas wrote under, ‘New York’s Rules Defeat lawsuit over road salts pollution’, “On Going Train Wreck” it is much too kind given the scope and scale locally to all of North America.
It’s worth mentioning that Europe has most sadly begun to copy the road salts policies and practices in USA. Out of many examples, during the snow events that have occurred in Rome during its at least 3,000 year existence. During the February 18, 2018 snow event in Rome salts were applied to ‘melt’ snow on roads and ancient bridges among them was Pons Milvius over the Tiber river. Pons Milvius was built at least 2,200 years ago. It was mentioned by Titus Livius in 207 BC in his writings about Punic Wars.
In summary, we all need to re-connect with Nature for simple fact we are all part of Nature. Every living thing on Earth no matter if are bacteria’s, fungi, plants, marine creatures, birds, reptiles, mammals all vitally rely on Nature and adjust their behaviours to their habitats no matter where they are geographically on Earth. Accordingly, everyone should adjust their ways of being and doing to be in harmony with seasons of the year.
In simple examples:
All experienced sailors surely know and advise it is absolutely necessary to adjust to sea, ocean, river, lake conditions and weather.
Be aware of surroundings. If weather conditions are challenging to travels be they in any manner on foot, road, paths, rail, air, sea, …wait until later,.. do something else as our ancestors did. Dress appropriately for season and weather conditions. Avoid herd mentality especially when driving cars, herd behaviours assure car crashes, pile-ups. The road speed limit signs are for ideal visibility, weather, very low traffic volume, .. but not for all weather conditions and visibility no matter if one is in Arctic, Temperate, Subtropical, Tropical, Desert, climates.
I’ve been very concerned about over the over use of salt in the Adirondacks for 20 years. Our small community has numerous residents with contaminated wells from road salt that are unusable for human consumption. I once emailed NYS DEC asking about the over use of salt to a reply of salt isn’t a contaminate. We have some of the purest water in the nation and be polluted daily in the winter and paid for by every taxpayer . My question is who’s regulating the limit salt use act. I see no change in NYS DOT use of salt . Still using a ridiculous amount of salt . Concerned Adirondacker