By Ry Rivard
For years, Jan and John Frederick, the owners of a farm near the Finger Lakes, were fighting the state for polluting their water supply.
A week ago, a judge handed them a rare victory over state transportation officials for contaminating their water supply with road salt.
The Fredericks, owners of Frederick Farm in the town of Phelps, between Rochester and Syracuse, discovered problems with their water after their dairy cows began dying over a decade ago. They traced the problems back to salt running off the nearby New York State Thruway, where salt is used to clear roads in the winter.
Nine years after they sued the state in the court of claims, a judge sided with the Fredericks and found the Thruway Authority owes the farmers $91,000 for the damage its road salt caused.
Court of claims Judge Renee Forgensi Minarik knocked the Thruway Authority for failing to quickly test the farm’s water or offer to provide a replacement water supply. She also found the salt runoff was an “unlawful invasion” of the Fredericks’ land, a farm that had been in the family since the 1950s where John Frederick, now in his 70s, grew up.
Judge Minarik, in a Dec. 30 ruling, found there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude the salt killed the cows, but that the farm clearly suffered other damage. Salt corroded farm equipment and appliances and the Fredericks had to hook the farm up to a safe municipal water supply.
Similar problems have cropped up across the state, particularly in the rural areas, like the North Country, that depend on well water that is often assumed safe but is rarely tested for contaminants.
The chemical properties of salt that help it fight off snow and ice also ruin cars, appliances and plumbing. Much of that damage is gradual, taking years instead of months to show itself.
Research suggests road crews can use less salt while also keeping roads safe, but because transportation officials seem to rarely face consequences of the damage they do to water supplies, there hasn’t been much incentive to curb salt use.
The state balances the damage done to water supplies with the roads it hopes to clear of snow each winter.
It’s easy to see if roads are poorly maintained.
It’s harder to know how much damage road salt may be causing to drinking water supplies. 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.
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law to study the damage done to the Adirondacks by road salt. Heavy salting of Adirondack roadways began ahead of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
Last year, the Adirondack Explorer reported on another farm, near Boonville, where farmers found high levels of salt in their water after their cows began to die. Those farmers’ claim against the state Department of Transportation was tossed on a technicality.
In New York, residents who want to take the state to court often have just 90 days to file a lawsuit. Even for homeowners with still undrinkable water, New York’s strict time limits make it nearly impossible to challenge the state in court.
Whether the rare penalty in the Frederick Farm case will prompt changes by the state is unclear.
The Thruway Authority did not respond to a request for comment.
The authority, which was represented in court by Attorney General Letitia James’ office, could appeal the decision. The Fredericks were represented by Amy Kendall and Jonathan Tantillo of the Rochester-based firm Knauf Shaw.