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

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This is the second 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)- Awareness about the unseen environmental harm associated with using rock salt has been on the rise. Researchers, as well as state, county and municipality transportation officials are continually taking actions aimed at reducing rock salt usage and decrease it’s damaging effects on the environment.

“Nobody really likes salt. We like to be able to drive in wintry conditions but it does a lot of damage. So there’s a lot of interest in salt efficiency,” says Vicky Kelly from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

Kelly, who has worked for the Cary Institute since 1988, began studying the effect rock salt has on freshwater sources after discovering high levels of sodium in the East Branch of Wappinger Creek, located behind the Cary Institute.

Kelly and two of her colleagues, released a report about the contamination of Wappinger Creek as well as ways to achieve more efficient ways of using rock salt. The report was initially released in 2010 and updated in Nov. 2019.

The report included an analysis of the creek which estimated 90 percent of the sodium in it had come from rock salt. The analysis also determined that more than likely the salt found it’s way into the creek through groundwater.

Kelly said part of the problem is that salt lingers in the environment long after it’s spread on roads. She said it can take upwards of 30 years for sodium accumulated in soil and groundwater to decrease.

It means the sodium in Wappinger Creek could have been from rock salt used as early as the 1970’s.

Because municipalities and the state are concerned with keeping motorists safe in addition to decreasing salt costs, increasing salt use efficiency and keeping the environmental impact low, it’s a complicated issue.

“It’s a tricky business,” said Saratoga County Commissioner of Public Works Keith Manz. He said Saratoga County takes time to make sure they know how much rock salt is being used during each winter event. He said employees also take time to make sure equipment is calibrated correctly and that a lot of time is taken to train new employees.

A representative for Albany County Department of Public Works Commissioner Lisa Ramundo agrees, “It’s a balance between making sure enough (rock salt) is used to keep people safe and monitoring to make sure there is not overuse.”

“Everybody is really interested in salt savings. It’s a savings in money as well as environmental cost,” Kelly said. “We think it’s really important to take steps now to at least improve our efficiency of salt use,” she said.

Rock salt impacts are widespread

Current estimates predict that it will take decades or more for salt levels to stabilize in freshwater systems, but that will only occur if we stabilize or reduce our use of road salt. Due to legacy effects, we should expect salt levels to continue to climb even after we initiate road salt reduction strategies. Year-to-year variability in weather can also ‘mask’ the effectiveness of salt reduction strategies. Monitoring efforts can help reveal when salt pollution begins to abate. It is critical that we tackle the salt pollution problem now, before streams, lakes, and rivers become highly impaired and salt in our drinking water reaches unpotable levels.

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Road Salt: The Problem, The Solution, and How to Get There

The New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) started a pilot program in the Lake George and the Mirror Lake region located near Lake Placid, after salt contamination was found in both lakes. The program uses alternative deicing methods to reduce environmental harm from rock salt, according to a press release from May 2018.

The program uses a variety of methods including the use of salt brine, technologically advanced plows to deice particular roads and close monitoring in these regions.

Salt brine, which is made by mixing salt with water to create a liquid deicer, is used readily across the state by the DOT according to their website. The process greatly reduces the amount of salt on roadways.

DOT released the following statement on the success and continuation of the program.

The New York State Department of Transportation’s pilot programs to explore the potential for road salt reductions in snow & ice operations are proceeding as planned. NYSDOT will continue these important projects for the next several seasons in order to have sufficient data and meaningful results as we study their effectiveness and ability to maintain reasonable levels of service  while always providing for the safety of the traveling public.

Glenn Blain, Assistant Director of Communications, New York State Department of Transportation

The next story in this series will take a closer look at the rock salt contamination of Lake George and Mirror Lake, as well as what is being done in those communities to decrease both of the lake’s sodium levels.

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