Members say they don’t know what’s holding up report release
By Zachary Matson
Members of the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force have grown frustrated as a report of recommendations they thought was largely completed months ago has languished with state agencies.
In interviews this week, task force members described inconsistent communication from state officials about the status of the report and timing of its release and said the delays raised concerns about the state’s commitment to addressing road salt pollution.
“One has to ask: is there commitment by the agencies to this overall initiative if we are missing these critical deadlines?” said Chris Navitsky, the Lake George waterkeeper who joined the task force after it commenced its work.
Navitsky and other members said they were disappointed the task force’s recommendations were not released in time to be considered during budget discussions in the winter and spring. The panel also failed to meet a December 2021 deadline outlined in legislation. Navitsky was slated to join a panel to discuss the task force report at last week’s Adirondack Research Conference; the session was canceled.
Assemblymember Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, who sponsored the legislation establishing the task force, on Friday at the research conference called on the state to publish the report.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said of the delays. “We’ve got to get that report out.”
Tracy Eldridge, the Hamilton County Superintendent of Public Works and a member of the panel, said he shared the concerns about the slow pace of the state agencies and what it meant for the committment to implement any future recommendations. He said the report will be valuable to establish a baseline of best practices and noted that budget support is important to local municipalities.
“It’s an important issue, and it’s really not a political issue,” Eldridge said. “It’s an issue where we need more education.”
It’s not clear what’s holding up the release. The state Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Conservation co-chair the 15-member task force. When asked for updates over the past months, agency representatives have suggested the report was being finalized and would be released soon.
In a statement Thursday, DOT spokesperson Glenn Blain said the task force “continues to work collaboratively to finalize the report langauge and format” but didn’t specify a target release date.
“Agency staff have undertaken a careful review to ensure all task force member edits are incorporated into the final report and reflective of the hard work of the task force members,” Blain said in the statement. “Finalization of this report remains a priority and will be completed and released soon.”
In December, the agencies indicated the report would be released early this year.
Task force members last met in February or March and were under the impression that a final report had been agreed on. The report is to be delivered to the governor and legislative leaders once complete, according to state law. Members said they were also assured it would be made public.
“By the first week in March, it was pens and pencils down,” said Bob Kafin, an environmental lawyer who served on the task force. Kafin said representatives of the state agencies have been inconsistent in their communications regarding the status of the report, sometimes suggesting it was still being edited, other times referring to it as in a formatting stage. He said he no longer has access to the document that had resided in a file-sharing site.
“It’s hard to know what’s going on, because we can’t see it,” Kafin said. “My patience is worn out.”
Legislation establishing the task force first passed in 2020 and called for a report to be produced by September 2021. That legislation was amended in 2021 and the report date moved to Dec. 1. Task force members had still not been appointed by that deadline.
Gov. Kathy Hochul ultimately named task force appointees on Dec. 16, 2021. The experience and knowledge of the members appointed buoyed hopes for a substantive report. They first met in February 2022.
The report will summarize the current understanding of road salt pollution and best winter road practices, detail legislative and budgetary recommendations, suggest pilot projects to study salt reduction strategies and describe public education campaigns, according to members.
Kris Stepenuck, a University of Vermont scientist on the task force, responded to the Explorer by email that she was looking forward to sharing the “well-researched set of recommendations based on peer reviewed literature from other locations where road salt reduction efforts are underway.” Stepenuck added: “I look forward to the report’s release to share those with people across the Adirondacks and New York.”
Kafin said task force members in the panel’s early months worked to meet aggressive deadlines, convening regularly in small groups tasked with different components of the report. They produced a draft of recommendations by last August.
Dan Kelting, a task force member who as a researcher at Paul Smith’s College helped bring to light the extent of road salt pollution in Adirondack lakes and groundwater, publicly outlined the task force’s initial recommendations at the Adirondack Lakes Alliance symposium last summer.
But state officials had introduced changes to the draft that some members said shifted the report’s emphasis to focusing more on public road safety than environmental harms, Kafin said. Kafin said some members raised concerns about the changes and “successfully fended that off.”
“I believe it was a very fair and balanced report that balanced the environmental impacts of salt with the needs of road safety,” Kafin said. “We never forgot about the safety of the traveling public, but the thing is called a road salt reduction task force.”
Task force members said they were uncertain about next steps or whether they would be asked to approve any changes, but they promised to speak out if the final report did not reflect the panel’s months of effort.
“This is not a DEC or DOT report,” Kafin said. “This is a task force report, and we wouldn’t let them put our names on something that didn’t accurately reflect the conclusions and recommendations we came to as a task force. I owe it to my fellow task force members to speak my mind publicly.”