By Ry Rivard
A bill to study the damage state highway officials are doing to water supplies in the Adirondacks has stalled and environmental groups are now urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to quickly make it law.
This summer, New York lawmakers approved the bill to require the state to look at ways to cut the pollution caused by salt dumped each winter on state roads.
Road salt damage has cropped up all over the state but stands out in the Adirondacks, which are otherwise protected from many kinds of pollution. This spring, an Adirondack Explorer investigation found that across upstate New York, road salt has seeped into drinking water supplies, poisoned wells, endangered public health and threatened people with financial ruin. Individuals facing problems are turned away from court by state laws favoring the highway officials over people who allege their water is poisoned.
The study bill, hailed as a first step to protect area waters, has idled now for weeks since it was approved by lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate.
In a statement urging the governor on, the Adirondack Council and other Adirondack groups were joined by statewide groups, including Environmental Advocates of New York and the New York League of Conservation Voters.
“Salty lakes and salty wells are bad news and something that won’t just go away overnight when we stop using salt,” the head of the Adirondack Council, Willie Janeway, said. “We can’t allow this damage to continue unabated.”
Rob Hayes, who works on clean water issues for Environmental Advocates, said the state needs a strong plan to deal with road salt, since it can also cause lead pipes to corrode, releasing the metal into water supplies. Even in low doses, lead damages children’s brains.
The governor’s office has yet to take a position on the bill, which was unveiled last winter in Saranac Lake by Sen. Betty Little, Assemblyman Billy Jones and Assemblyman Dan Stec. Other leading lawmakers eventually signed on before the bill passed with approval from members of both parties in both chambers.
“We are reviewing the legislation,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Caitlin Girouard, said in an email.
Why the governor is taking his time is unclear. There’s a lot on the governor’s plate — the pandemic and attempts to reopen the economy among them.
But the simply study bill could also be facing opposition internally from the Department of Transportation.
History, both recent and distant, suggests DOT has struggled to get its arm around the damage that can be done by road salt, which has been a problem since at least the 1970s when water supplies around salt stockpiles were found to be unsafe.
In the decades since, lawmakers and environmental advocates have taken repeated runs at the issue. Three decades ago, highway officials even studied and tried to reduce how much salt they dumped on roads.
But problems persist, in part because DOT is trying to balance the damage done by too much salt with the accidents that can happen if there’s too little to keep roads clear.
Among other things, the bill would require DOT to study the damage caused by salt and to study whether it can use less salt on roads while keeping roads safe.