By RY RIVARD
In the state’s first serious attempt at reining in the 300 million pounds of road salt dumped each year in the Adirondack Park, state lawmakers this week approved a bill to study how much damage salt is doing in the region, particularly to drinking water supplies.
If signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the bill would also require a new state task force to recommend changes to how road workers clear roads each winter in the Adirondacks.
The bill creates a 14-member group to hold public hearings, investigate the damage already done by road salt and come up with new guidelines for highway departments, including the state Department of Transportation, to follow. The bill expects the task force to spend three years on the job, wrapping up its work by the end of 2024.
Because of the way salt is dumped and spread, much of it runs off into nearby streams, lakes and groundwater. The chemical properties of salt that help it fight off snow and ice also corrode metal and harm plants and animals. In a high enough dose, salt is dangerous to human health—it raises blood pressure and leads to heart attacks, strokes and kidney disease.
“The ecological damage it has already made is extraordinarily significant, and it is predicted to only get worse if we don’t act immediately,” said Sen. Tim Kennedy, of Western New York, who helped champion the bill.
The legislation, unveiled last winter in Saranac Lake by Sen. Betty Little, Assemblyman Billy Jones and Assemblyman Dan Stec, comes after years of red flags raised in research by the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College.
The institute, led by Dan Kelting, has tested nearly 500 wells in the Adirondacks. More than half of the wells they tested downhill from state roads had elevated salt levels.
There’s at least some indication road salt could also be finding its way into the Village of Saranac Lake’s water supply, meaning thousands of people are now drinking at least moderately contaminated water.
So far, the state hasn’t had to quantify the damage or pay for a widespread cleanup, despite knowing about salt’s environmental and health dangers for decades.
Some areas have already cracked down on road salt use, like local governments around Lake George.
“The good news, as we’ve seen in municipalities such as Lake George where there has been a tremendous focus on this issue, is that newer equipment and utilizing technology is helping our local highway departments do their incredibly important work of keeping our roadways safe while cutting back on road salt usage,” Little said in a statement. “My hope is that we can do the same throughout the Park. “
The Adirondack Explorer has recently found the state has refused to help homeowners, even when state DOT officials admit salt polluted home drinking water supplies.
The coronavirus outbreak sidelined the bill for a while, along with many others, but it passed the Assembly on Monday and then the Senate on Thursday, both unanimously. The bill will return to the Assembly before heading to the governor.
While task forces often attract eye rolls, the Adirondack Council, one of the bill’s champions, says past study groups have ended up helping the park. An earlier task force on invasive species, for instance, eventually helped lead to boat-washing stations to prevent their spread to new lakes.
The bill is known as “The Randy Preston Road Salt Reduction Act,” in honor of the long-time Wilmington Supervisor and Adirondack champion who passed away a year ago.