Report recommends state adopt new deicing practices
By Zachary Matson
Adirondack Watershed Institute scientists for years have raised alarms about the wide-reaching harms of road salt pollution on Adirondack waters. The institute’s researchers connected state highway runoff to residential well contamination, documented salt’s role in changes to aquatic ecosystems and outlined the economic costs of corrosion damage to roads, bridges and vehicles.
All the while, the water at Paul Smith’s College, the institute’s longtime home, has shown signs of salt pollution.
The college’s water contains among the highest levels of sodium and chloride concentrations in the Adirondack Park, surpassing a threshold recommended for people living with certain heart, kidney and liver conditions.
Intermittent water discoloration bedeviled the campus last year, and college officials this summer notified students that drinking water had exceeded action levels for lead in December 2022 and May, indications of corroding infrastructure.
The college is not alone. Scores of public water supplies throughout the park—and hundreds more throughout the state—report elevated sodium and chloride levels, a sign of widespread road salt use, according to the findings of the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force.
The task force report released in September offered a sweeping assessment of the pervasiveness of road salt pollution in the park. It documented damaging signs of salt pollution in both aquatic habitats and drinking water sources and urged action to reduce salt use and repair contaminated waters.
Annual water quality reports that drinking water providers distribute to their users document the results of tests for numerous contaminants, including sodium and chloride.
When water districts find sodium of at least 20 milligrams per liter, they attach a footnote: water “should not be used for drinking by people on severely restricted sodium diets.”
The sodium warnings occur in recent reports of at least a dozen Adirondack municipal water districts, including Saranac Lake, Minerva and Hadley. Numerous mobile home parks, housing associations and other small water systems throughout the park and on its fringes also show signs of salty tap water, according to an Adirondack Explorer analysis of water quality reports.
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.
Using a state database, the task force counted 80 public water systems in the Adirondacks that exceeded sodium concentrations of 20 mg/l, all but four of which draw from groundwater.
The problem may be even worse for residential wells, which provide water to a larger share of Adirondack homes and receive a fraction of the testing and monitoring of public systems. Where sodium and chloride levels are elevated, old piping can leach lead and copper into the water and corrosion can run up the bill for replacement appliances.
The task force estimated that 23% of homes on private wells could be at risk of lead leaching into the water as corrosion attacks an aging housing stock. Groundwater sources are more contaminated than surface water, according to the task force, and underground pollution pathways more difficult to trace.
Set up by the Legislature three years ago, the task force presented seven core recommendations:
- Adopt more protective water quality standards and develop road salt reduction targets;
- Increase use of proven snow and ice removal practices that reduce overall salt use while maintaining service;
- Train snow removal professionals and the stakeholders who influence policies and salt use;
- Expand existing funding programs and create new ones to implement best practices and remediate negative impacts of salt use;
- Track salt applications at state, local and private levels and make data on its use publicly accessible;
- Create an outreach and awareness campaign to strengthen public understanding of salt use and its risks;
- Establish a clear process for reporting and remediating contamination of residential drinking water.
Where’s the accountability?
Task force members proposed establishing a committee of non-government members to provide oversight of state implementation. That idea was left out of the final report at the behest of state officials, leaving some concerned about the lack of accountability to ensure recommendations are implemented.
“I felt all the state agencies didn’t really want to hear something that affected them,” said Gerald Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board. “Like everything else in government, this will subside because of a lack of action, and it will be taken up again when something more catastrophic happens.”
Task force members said residents, advocacy groups, lawmakers and researchers will need to maintain pressure for state agencies to act. Funding and changes to criteria of existing grant programs will also be necessary to support the proposals.
Bob Kafin, a task force member and environmental attorney, said DOT lawyers and staff edited report drafts to distance the agency from blame for existing problems or responsibility to reduce salt use. Members had also proposed developing a more detailed implementation plan and promoting the report with a press conference and other public engagement, according to interviews.
“We discovered tremendous resistance from the state Department of Transportation to changing anything they did,” Kafin said. “They took the view they already did best management practices and resisted any criticism of what they did.”
DOT spokesperson Joe Morrissey in the fall did not directly respond to the criticism but said with the report’s release the task force had “fulfill[ed] its obligations under state law,” and that there were “no current plans to reconvene.”
Recommendations, he said, “are being evaluated and considered as the state advances preparations for the upcoming winter season and ensures the balance between providing a safe highway system and protecting the environment is achieved.”
Other task force members highlighted the protection and safety concerns and acknowledged the statewide duties of the agencies. One member said criticism that state officials ignore environmental harms is wrong.
“Any attempt to frame the overuse of road salt as nefarious or something imposed by people that want to destroy the environment is not true,” said Brittany Christenson, a task force member focused on fixing contaminated water sources. “It’s a lot of people working really hard to keep the road safe. Unfortunately, that can come at a cost to the environment and people having clean drinking water.”
Rapid response, new standards
The report suggests DOT and DEC establish a “rapid and efficient process” to identify, report and remediate contaminated drinking sources. Residents should be made aware of water testing options and be given clear guidelines to file a complaint if their water is polluted, complaints that should be acted on in a timely manner, according to the report. The report also proposes a cost study of remediation needs and funding for fixes.
“It’s within [state agencies’] wheelhouse, within their power and there is a clear recommendation to move forward,” Christenson, former executive director of AdkAction, said.
There are a limited number of ways to fix a contaminated water source. Residents can drill a new well, preferably upslope of roads and other runoff sources. But wells are expensive and new wells may yield high salt levels, too. Public water systems can be expanded to connect pockets of contaminated properties, projects that run into the millions of dollars. Reverse osmosis filter systems can also be installed, another costly option for residents.
The task force recommended a requirement to disclose sodium and chloride concentrations before real estate transactions, so long as there is funding to remediate contamination and limit the risk a property loses value.
The state has never adopted surface water quality standards for chloride concentrations. The report proposes the state adopt the federal threshold of 230 mg/l. But even that standard is far higher than levels that threaten aquatic ecosystems and water supplies. So the task force proposes 40 mg/l as a goal and 10 mg/l as protective of any change to aquatic life in the Adirondacks.
About a half dozen closely monitored Adirondack lakes have chloride concentrations higher than 40 mg/l. Those watersheds could tie use reductions to the goal of driving lake chloride concentrations below the target, according to the task force proposal.
“It’s an ecological approach,” said Dan Kelting, who led AWI and much of its salt research over the past 20 years.
Salt contracts: Who benefits?
Joe Martens, a former DEC commissioner on the task force, said agency leaders should be proactive and communicate to the public how they plan to move forward with recommendations.
Some of the actions could be taken soon, like a public awareness campaign, while others would require a lengthy regulatory and public comment process. For those proposals, such as establishing new water standards or changing funding criteria, agency leaders could initiate the process and push for money in the next state budget.
“If nothing else this task force report puts front and center that this is a problem that has to be addressed, and business as usual is not possible any longer,” Martens said. “I would get out in front of the issue and have an action plan and be honest about where there are limitations to resources.”
State officials envision new pilot projects to complement those at Route 9N near Lake George, Routes 73 and 86 in Essex County and Route 5 in Herkimer County. The pilots employ various salt reduction strategies and could serve to test task force recommendations.
Complicating factors on campus
In every corner of the park, Adirondack residents are grappling with the downstream consequences of keeping roads clear in winter. Some rely on regular bottled water deliveries because their water was fouled by salt piles. Others spent years and millions of dollars hooking into public systems.
The contamination sources are often difficult to trace and responsibility easy to obfuscate. Some homeowners garnered state support to drill new wells, while others were denied help.
“It pervades people’s lives,” Christenson said.
Kate Hemsley, editor of Apollos, Paul Smith’s College student magazine, reported on student concerns about brownish water, nicknamed Paul Smith’s Iced Tea, and frustrations with the response from the school administration.
“It was something a lot of students were talking about,” Hemsley said.
The campus’ galvanized iron pipes are rusting into the water and causing discoloration, particularly after periods of limited use, Kelting, interim president at Paul Smith’s, said. Chloride exacerbates the underlying corrosion. The college is introducing corrosion inhibitors into the water this year and planning to replace some campus water mains this summer.
Though used by the task force, water quality reports are an imperfect measure of salt contamination. They sample levels after treatment, which can introduce more sodium and chloride into the water, and are not reported uniformly across water systems.
Kelting said given the location of the campus wells and the area’s topography he expected the water source was buffered against road salt runoff. He said salt contamination from Lower St. Regis Lake could be seeping into the campus groundwater and that treatment processes are likely contributing to elevated sodium and chloride concentrations. It’s possible an underground pathway delivered road runoff to the college’s groundwater, he said.
“My assumption is that most of what you're seeing there is from treatment by the college,” Kelting said.
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This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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Photo at top: A snowplow crew clears a New York state roadway. Photo courtesy of NYS Department of Environmental Conservation