Getting a grip on the cost and impact of rock salt: part four

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This is the fourth story in a series digging into the economic and environmental costs of using rock salt. Each week News10 ABC will explore the multiple aspects of this issue as it concerns N.Y., its counties, cities, towns and villages.

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10)- As part of his 2020 legislative proposals, Governor Andrew Cuomo says he plans on providing $9.4 million to protect the waters of Lake George. An additional $3 million grant from the state under the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act and a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s Water Quality Improvement Project brings the total state investment to nearly $15 million, according to the governor’s proposal.

WIT Advisers Founder and CEO, Phil Sexton, says it’s good the state is investing in the health of Lake George. But, he thinks the way to get municipalities and businesses all on board to tackle the larger problem of rock salt contamination is to show them how they can save money.

Sexton spent many years working as a partner for a large landscaping and winter management company. In 2011 he founded WIT or “Whatever it Takes” Advisers. WIT provides certification for a Sustainable Winter Management program (SWiM) that helps businesses and some municipalities save money by using sustainable winter maintenance methods which include decreasing the use of rock salt.

Sexton says the SWiM program focuses on saving money, not environmental issues because people aren’t motivated by the negative environmental impact. “We’ve learned we can’t make it about the environment, it comes down to economics. People care, but not that much,” Sexton says. “People aren’t affected when you say fish are dying,” he says.

TJ Thornton agrees. He says companies are most concerned with the bottom line- reducing injury risk on properties and keeping customers happy. Thornton spent 10 years working for landscaping companies that provided winter maintenance, including plowing/deicing for businesses throughout the Capital Region. “They don’t care about the ecological point of view,” says Thornton. “It’s all about somebody getting hurt,” he says.

Although SWiM focuses on saving companies money, Sexton is well aware of the environmental implications of using rock salt. In 2017 he wrote his master’s thesis analyzing rock salt sustainability.

Sexton concluded that mounting research on the environmental harm of rock salt could not be ignored but, instead of using regulation in a fragmented market to decrease usage, it would be more beneficial for widespread education of the winter management industry on sustainable winter management practices.

Thornton says he was never given any formal instruction on how to use rock salt or other deicing agents. “Never once had anyone said watch how much salt to put down, just put it down,” he says. “They care about how much money they are spending versus risk,” says Thornton.

That’s one of the reasons why Sexton says providing incentives are a better way to inspire a change in the industry. “There’s alternatives but salt is generally pretty cheap. We feel it may be wasted effort unless there is a cost-benefit people won’t do it,” Sexton says.

Sexton says he spends a lot of time educating businesses. “We try to take the excuses out of the picture. A lot of times the cost is just an excuse because they don’t want to change,” he says. “We have to get people to understand the basics. That’s been a really hard thing to do and we’re trying to get through to a highly fragmented industry.”

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