Other states demonstrate solutions for tackling chloride contamination, tightening regulations
By Zachary Matson
Somewhere on a road in northeast Minnesota a snowplow named Clearopathtra makes life easier for impatient drivers.
“Name-a-Snowplow” competitions in states across the country remind residents about the importance of winter road crews and the risks of overusing salt. After New York and Pennsylvania, states in the Upper Midwest are among the country’s largest users of road salt each winter.
For more than two decades, aquatic chloride standards in those states have pushed regulators, policymakers and elected officials to track and optimize salt use, spread best practices, bolster public understanding and expand water monitoring.
The Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force, in its report last year, drew on lessons from other states, as well as within New York, to outline ways for New York to improve state, local and private salt use practices.
The lessons of other states point out a variety of legal and policy strategies:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1988 recommended chloride standards of 230 mg/l to protect aquatic ecosystems. Even as researchers continued to find harms to aquatic life at far lower concentrations, including in the Adirondack Park, New York never adopted the standard. Many other states did.
Stephen McCracken spends a lot of time looking at chloride concentrations. He works on implementing a 20-year-old chloride control plan in suburban Chicago, one of the nation’s first road salt pollution plans approved under the federal Clean Water Act.
In the Adirondacks, the highest chloride concentrations in lakes hover just above 50 mg/l. On McCracken’s charts, chloride concentrations sometimes blow past 500 mg/l.
“I have never seen a chloride concentration of 50 (mg/l) in this area,” McCracken said about Illinois readings.
McCracken analyzes biodiversity measures against chloride concentrations and said he finds aquatic life protected at levels of 150 mg/l or less.
The densely populated region’s high chloride concentrations raised red flags after waterways crossed the state’s high chloride standard and landed on a state list of impaired waters. State regulators in 2004 imposed a chloride control plan.
No chloride management plan dictates salt use. Instead, they seek to formalize and sometimes mandate best practices, expand reporting requirements, document continued progress and monitor responses in water chemistry. Some plans analyze the historic and continuing sources of chloride pollution in an area.
Officials in the Chicago area used a new approach in 2018 when they sought to expand the recreational uses of the region’s waterways. Numerous local water districts and governments, including Chicago, petitioned that they could not meet a 500 mg/l chloride standard. Rather than granting individual exemptions to the requirement, the region developed a watershed-wide variance outlining steps the salt users could take in lieu of meeting the targeted concentrations.
The 15-year plan requires participants to implement a list of best practices, develop a road salt minimization plan and submit an annual report that evaluates progress, records weather conditions and documents salt use. They must also participate in watershed work group meetings that coordinate strategies, plan training and share challenges and successes.
“There is actually a lot we can do about it,” said Hanna Miller, who works at the Illinois-based Conservation Foundation and helps coordinate the chloride work group. “We can show they are making changes; they are reducing salt use and we are hoping by the end they are showing improved water quality.”
The Adirondack task force report recommended the state adopt the federal chloride standard, and a Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson said the agency is evaluating one, but that standard wouldn’t apply to the moderate-by-comparison concentrations of Adirondack lakes. So, the task force suggested setting chloride targets of 40 mg/l and 10 mg/l for the park’s sensitive ecosystems.
“In an area of outstanding natural pristine environment, why not have an enhanced chloride standard?” said McCracken, also of the Conservation Foundation.
Hold the Salt
With a panel of task force members and other experts, Adirondack Explorer examines what’s next for road salt reduction in the Adirondacks.
Since the late 1960s, public health officials in Madison, Wisconsin, have measured chloride concentrations in the city’s prized string of lakes. In that time, monthly measurements documented steadily rising chloride concentrations, increasing in six lakes from around 20 mg/l in the early 1970s to near 60 mg/l or higher in recent years.
The city and state have sought to rein in salt use, including the use of discarded cheese brine on roads. A coalition of groups established Wisconsin Salt Wise to champion efficient salt use, first in and around the city and eventually statewide.
Now, Allison Madison, the initiative’s sole full-time employee, travels the state evangelizing a simple message: Use the right amount of salt for the job. She organizes training for local highway departments and hosts monthly webinars with scientists, policymakers and road maintenance workers on all things road salt. She even registered as a lobbyist to back a bill to limit liability for trained and certified salt applicators.
Salt Wise uses interns, partners with other organizations across the state and works with local watershed groups, arming citizen scientists with cheap test strips and kayaks to collect chloride samples.
“We don’t want to just tell people here is another huge problem but get people out and appreciate being on the water,” Madison said.
Exposure to lawsuits, especially for private businesses and contractors who clear parking lots and sidewalks, is often cited as contributing to excessive salt use. State agencies also face a deluge of claims from residents injured, sometimes severely, on slippery winter roads —even if those cases are hard to win.
New Hampshire lawmakers in 2016 adopted a program that limits liability for private contractors who take a course in salt use best practices and report annual salt use to a coordinator with the state’s Department of Environmental Services. So long as the contractor is not negligent or ignores best practices, neither they nor the property owner can be sued over a fall.
Legislation to establish similar programs was introduced in Wisconsin last year, and the Adirondack task force suggested limiting private liability to incentivize salt use training.
The law could help shift salt users away from a legacy of justifying heavy salt use as a hedge against legal exposure, said Dave Strifling, director of the water law and policy initiative at Marquette University Law School. Strifling authored a recent article on road salt management and said given the policy landscape many salt users determined the rational decision was to oversalt to limit potential claims.
“The way things have developed over the last 50 years, historically, the safe strategy, the safe policy has been over application of salt,” Strifling said.
Unusual alliances of environmentalists and advocates for constraining lawsuits have formed to support the effort, while groups representing trial lawyers oppose it.
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Lawsuits, though, may still offer untested paths to combatting improper salt use.
Strifling said legal exposure from causing contamination could grow in relevance, citing several potential legal arguments against government road salt practices.
He said the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act establishes remedies for inappropriate disposal of solid waste. A resident of Omaha, Neb., unsuccessfully sued the city over its salting practice, but a federal court ruled the city’s salt use was as intended. Strifling said a future plaintiff could make a stronger case by demonstrating excessive or unnecessary salt use. Those limits are still open to legal challenges.
“When applying a useful product, there comes a point where you pass a certain bar where it’s not being done for intended purposes, now it’s disposal of a solid waste,” Strifling said. “That’s got to have some limit.”
Citizens in Michigan recently sued General Motors for water contamination caused by the car company’s heavy salting of its nearby proving grounds. The parties settled, but Strifling said you could see similar claims brought against historic excessive salt use.
When New Yorkers in 2021 approved a constitutional amendment establishing a state right to a “clean and healthful environment,” they may have opened the door to a novel legal strategy to contest salt pollution. Residents brought nine lawsuits under the new right as of this fall, according to a tally of the cases compiled by the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. None of the cases touched on road salt.
“This is an area where the policy has been slow to catch up with the science,” Strifling said. “The pendulum is swinging back.”
What if roads, parking lots and other infrastructure needed less salt in the first place?
Connie Fortin, a Minneapolis-based consultant who worked on numerous salt reduction studies and plans in Minnesota, has been asking that question for years. Fortin joined engineering and design firm Bolton & Menk in 2022 as a “low salt strategist” charged with ensuring designers account for the seasonal dynamics of winter weather.
Not only can salt users optimize the amount of salt they put down, infrastructure can be designed to need less salt, Fortin said. Roads and highways can be designed smarter with better drainage to prevent refreezing in icy trouble spots. Parking lots can be organized to simplify plowing and minimize the inclination to salt. Buildings can be oriented to limit buildup of blowing snow. Green infrastructure or simple berms can shield roads, preventing icing.
“If we could design for better winter performance then they don’t need to salt as often,” Fortin said. “They don’t salt for fun; they salt because of public safety.”
Fortin said her firm’s design software is programmed to consider winter conditions like the seasonal position of the sun. The designers work with clients – such as school districts and municipal governments – on ways to understand and reduce chloride pollution.
The focus of engineers and architects has largely been on draining stormwater, not managing snow and ice, Fortin said.
Something as simple as planting deciduous trees to let winter light reach a paved surface can result in less need for salting. The Adirondack task force recommended a pilot program to study cutting vegetation near problem “cold spots,” especially near sensitive water sources. The idea is to reduce shady road areas, sites of heavy salt use.
“The sun is our friend,” Fortin said.
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