By Ry Rivard
State lawmakers recently scaled back a study of road salt pollution in the Adirondacks, apparently bowing to concerns that the study could expose the state to liability from residents with unsafe water.
Late last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law that would require the state to form a task force to examine the effects of road salt pollution in the Adirondacks. Each year, the state dumps millions of pounds of salt on roads to keep them clear of ice and snow.
Some of that salt has seeped into North Country drinking water supplies, made water unsafe to use and threatened people with financial ruin, the Adirondack Explorer has reported over the past year.
The governor’s approval of a study of that damage came with caveats.
The original law focused on creating a task force to study the runoff from state Department of Transportation salt trucks and required the department to turn over 20 years of data that, in turn, could become public.
In a memo accompanying his signature in December, the governor worried the study ignored other sources of salt runoff and could endanger drivers with mandates that didn’t take public safety into account.
A bill to quietly amend the law was introduced in early January and signed by the governor in mid-February.
The amended law addresses the governor’s concerns, but also adds language that protects DOT from making public information that could be used against it in court. Now, transportation officials don’t have to turn over as many records to the task force about salt use and the information they do provide about how much salt they use “shall not be redisclosed” without the consent of department officials.
“It all boils down to liability,” said Brittany Christenson, the executive director of AdkAction, one of the environmental groups involved in lobbying for a salt study.
The state is already largely insulated from liability for salt damage because the salt is put on roads each winter to prevent other problems, namely traffic accidents, and it’s been hard for alleged victims to afford the outside experts and attorneys necessary to challenge the state in court.
One rough estimate, by the team of Virginia Tech researchers who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, found nearly a half-million New Yorkers drink from wells that could be contaminated by salt, though researchers admitted their guess was on the high end.
Yet, the cases that do land can be expensive for the state. A handful of out-of-court settlements related to salt dumped or stored in the past 20 years have cost DOT over $100,000, according to records the department recently provided to the Explorer. Late last year, a judge found salt runoff from the New York State Thruway Authority damaged a Finger Lakes farm, causing $91,000 in damage the state must pay for.
DOT officials wanted changes to the study because they felt the original law unfairly singled out salt put down by the department. That much is true. Local governments and even private owners of large paved areas also use lots of salt to clear local roads, parking lots and sidewalks. The law now requires the task force to study that damage, too.
“The recently-signed Randy Preston Road Salt Reduction Act is strong legislation that facilitates partnerships with local officials and can only help strengthen NYSDOT’s position as a national leader in the safe and balanced application of road salt in the North Country and across New York,” transportation department spokesman Joseph Morrissey said in a statement. “We look forward to being an active participant in working collaboratively with the task force, and implementing recommendations as practicable while maintaining the health and safety of the traveling public.”
Assemblyman Bill Jones, who sponsored this year’s amendment, said it deals “more holistically” with the salt problem.
“These changes stem from negotiations with the governor who supported expanding the scope of the task force and developing a program within the realities of the state’s budget deficit,” he said in a statement.
Jones said he expects full transparency from the state, particularly on matters relating to public health and environmental protection.
Christenson and others are still supportive of the study. She said some of the amendments to the law make sense, including the explicit call for local leaders and scientists to be on the task force, which has yet to be named.
Dan Kelting, the head of the Adirondack Watershed Institute of Paul Smith’s College, said after the back and forth in Albany to change the law, the core idea for the study is still there.
“The most important piece in my mind is that we have a task force and can talk and share ideas openly within the group, versus what we have now, which is one sided communication,” he said.
John Sheehan, the spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said a lot of lawmakers want to make sure the study happens and that science will point to reforms that DOT needs to make.
“As for the sharing of data, we and the Legislature will expect nothing less than full transparency,” he said. “If we don’t get it, you will hear about that from us, loud and clear and often.”
Unlike the original legislation, which was hailed with statements by the environmental groups and lawmakers in a celebratory press conference in December in Saranac Lake, the new amendments received little public attention.
The state transportation department is also already working on pilot projects in and around Lake Placid and Lake George that will examine whether it can safely use less salt.
The new law calls for other state testing areas elsewhere in the park, pending the availability of money from the state.
Some local highway departments are moving more quickly to curb salt use. Warren County’s public works department, for instance, is already treating 100 miles of roads with a saltwater brine and using more advanced plows that do a better job clearing roads.