Task force suggests best practices and alternatives to salt on Adirondack roads
By James M. Odato
Maintenance departments must resist bombarding roads of contaminating road salt, fully analyze the need for and effects of salt use and train crews and require certification on best practices, experts assembled by the state suggest, according to information in a new 27-page report.
The state report, embodying much of the work of the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force set in legislation that initially called for a report two years ago, was released by state officials Tuesday after much anticipation and some frustration from task force members regarding publication delays.
To be delivered to Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Legislature, the report recommends enhanced public funding to achieve goals and objectives. It was backed with a 50-page scientific and technical appendix detailing how salt threatens health and infrastructure.
The main report calls for unspecified sums to achieve ways to reduce salt use during winter months given the documented damage and ill effects of chloride and substances that wash into the Adirondacks’ many waterbodies and corrode facilities and equipment.
The final report comes after demands from participants and environmental activists for it to be produced. It arrives well after the final meeting of the task force of 10 public members plus representatives of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Adirondack Park Agency.
“To implement the recommendations included in this report, additional funding from federal, state, or local governments will be necessary,” it says. “The implementation of best management practices will guide any necessary changes to current snow and ice removal operations, comprehensive planning to institute such changes, and purchasing of equipment for more efficient application of road salt.”
The document lays out the bad things that happen when so much salt is applied in the Adirondacks. It points to a study that questions whether water quality standards are not protective enough to prevent impacts to the Adirondack Park’s sensitive natural resources and ecosystem.
Besides aiming to protect the park’s water quality, wildlife, and the environment from further potential harm, the study indicates that some residents are threatened by salt runoff, citing “a limited number of instances of regulatory guideline exceedances” found that could result in “impacts to human health.”
“The impacts from road salt on the environment can be long term,” the report says.
“Climate change accelerates our need to find and implement safety practices that protect both public health and the environment,” Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said in a press release with the report. “I support thoughtful and practical programs that will further advance our understanding of how best to support the pristine and healthy environment that the Adirondacks provide, now and for decades to come.”
The document says that an estimated 193,000 tons of road salt gets spread each winter over public roads of the Adirondack Park — some 34 tons of road salt per lane-mile of state roads and 13 tons per lane-mile of local roads.
“Once dissolved, about half the road salt applied to roads in winter runs off into surface waters through snow melt and stormwater,” the document says. “The remainder finds its way onto surfaces where, even during warmer months of the year when road salt is not applied, it continues to leach farther into surface and groundwaters.” At least 3,687 miles (28%) of rivers and streams and 820 (7%) lakes and ponds within the Adirondack Park may be tainted by salt runoff from the paved roads.
The task force suggests some pilot programs be studied and more undertaken but also suggests training of public works departments about alternatives and best practices to end frequent and heavy use of salt.
“The goals should be to instill a shared understanding of the need for an effective winter maintenance program, the impacts of excessive road salt applications, bolstering support for road salt reduction measures and alternative removal approaches from a wide set of targeted public audiences, fostering a willingness among the public to support salt management, and garnering support from elected officials to facilitate implementation of best practices, while also considering public safety,” the report states.
The task force recommends that agencies induce road crews to adapt by proving that chloride-free deicing strategies can meet or exceed salt use for safety and performance.
State DOT Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said they look forward to finding a balance between public safety and environmental stewardship. “We are currently evaluating new areas within the Adirondack Park to conduct salt reduction pilot programs this coming winter,” Dominguez said.
The task force suggests that some vegetation management and seasonal speed safety warnings be attempted to go along with alternatives to salt use.
Roadway grading, ditching, brush cutting and tree clearing may allow for snow storage off the paved surface, rerouting drainage of surface runoff and letting in sunlight to increase pavement surface temperatures. These steps alone could reduce reliance on road salt.
Another idea is for road departments to improve material inventory tracking to understand how much salt and sand is being used, measuring areas for application to understand how much is reasonably needed for a specific roadway and to calibrate equipment accordingly.
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The task force said a professional certification program may be wise as a way to deliver training, particularly for private-sector applicators who may not benefit from training given to public-sector crews. “Offering limited liability protection to trained and certified practitioners who follow prescribed reduced salt best practices could be one tool to incentivize participation,” the report says.
Task force member Daniel Kelting, Paul Smith College’s interim president, was the only scientist on the panel.
He said he was heartened that much of the science of salt use made it into the report.
The college’s Adirondack Watershed Institute “was first to publish and report the widespread pollution of our invaluable surface and groundwater resources,” he said. “Working with our partners and elected officials we used the science to inform the need to evaluate our use of road salt and to recommend changes in policies and practices to protect our environment and human health.
“Now the hard and necessary work of implementing the many excellent recommendations must begin, we owe it to the waters of the Adirondacks and to future generations who need clean water.”
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