In its first meeting, members explore possible solutions, go into closed-door session
By Zachary Matson
A new state task force on Monday launched its work to reduce road salt use in the Adirondack Park— and potentially across the state —broaching thorny issues the panel is charged with sorting out.
Members of the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force with a wide range of expertise offered their initial thoughts at the inaugural meeting, breaking open a long-simmering discussion over how to minimize the harmful contamination caused by the use of road salt.
From altering the public’s winter driving behavior to grappling with constitutional limitations on cutting trees along roads, members touched on numerous challenges they will attempt to work through in the coming months to develop a comprehensive report and pilot program.
“Part of the challenge of road salt overuse is it’s done as a matter of caution, so we can protect each other,” said Brittany Christenson, the former executive director of ADKAction. She said the Adirondack Park could serve as a model for addressing a problem of growing global focus.
Dan Kelting, director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute, underscored the vast amount of sodium and chloride that has accumulated in soil and water since road crews adopted widespread salt use as a strategy to clear winter roads around the time of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. He calculated that over 7 million tons of road salt have been applied to Adirondack roads in the past 42 years, degrading the quality of the region’s groundwater to what would be expected in urban areas.
“We have perhaps a public health crisis,” Kelting said.
Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez led the meeting from an in-person setting where over a dozen state officials convened, while other task force members joined virtually. Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, who co-chairs the task force with Dominguez, missed the meeting due to travel delays. Health Commissioner Mary Bassett also joined as a task force member.
Dominguez highlighted the balancing act the panel must contend with to fulfill their legislative mandate.
“We are committed to ensuring the safe operations of roadways while also protecting environmental and public health concerns,” Dominguez said.
Task force members raised the touchy issue of cutting trees along road corridors to foster melting of ice and snow. Road crews use more salt to generate melting in areas with greater shade cover. Cutting trees on the forest preserve for any purpose is tricky under the state constitution’s “forever wild” clause, and some members said in the past the provision has been a hindrance to efforts to limit salt use on certain roads.
“The founders of Article 14 never ever would have wanted us to contaminate waters with salt rather than cutting a tree,” said Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board.
Delaney also said “tort laws drive a lot of salt use” and suggested the task force recommend limiting legal liability associated with winter road maintenance. Both public and private entities use salt to maintain safe roads, parking lots and sidewalks, all of which contribute to water pollution. Residents with wells polluted due to state salt use have struggled to gain legal traction against the state in the courts.
Members focused on the importance of working to change the public’s driving behavior and expectations, with some recalling when it used to be common to reduce speeds on snow-covered roads. They offered ideas such as requiring snow tires and imposing lower speed limits during poor conditions. They also talked about the challenges of achieving a cultural shift among road crews asked to keep roads safe.
After the public discussion, the task force met in a “work session” closed to the public, without citing any exception to state law requiring public bodies conduct business in the open. A meeting facilitator said task force members would get into the “nitty gritty” of how they would carry out their work, suggesting they would address scheduling and other logistics. Responding to an Explorer inquiry after the meeting, Kristin O’Neil, assistant director for the Committee on Open Government, opined that the panel should adhere to open meetings law.
The task force has a tight deadline to compile a report due to the Legislature by Sept. 1. The report must include an overview of the use of road salt and its impacts, a review of current best road management practices, plans to monitor ongoing salt and contamination, recommendations for a public database of salt purchase and use and plans for a pilot program on reducing salt in the Adirondacks.
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Better late than never, I suppose…
In all seriousness, the task force should visit and consult with the Swiss on salt and more generally snow management. While geography and climate differences exist, I believe Switzerland faces even more diversity in winter road management. Rock salt seems almost never used there.
And (ab)use of rock salt is a problem statewide.
The historical and legal dimension I find especially interesting: when and why did we begin changing our local practices in winter driving and road maintenance? The apparent answer–that this is very much an outgrowth of the 1980 Winter Olympics–makes me wonder what other unexpected long-term environmental effects parts od our region will see as a result of changing economic and land-use patterns. I suspect, even, that there are already some undetected water-quality issues of a different nature brewing, as large-scale developments, especially those encircling lakes, are now being approved by APA in an unprecedented way.