Safety for the long haul: When snow falls, individuals and governments can reduce salt use

— Photo from cover of Adirondack Road Salt Reduction
Task Force Assessment and Recommendations report

The Adirondacks can serve as a bellwether for the rest of New York state or even the nation.

The park is often thought of as a pristine wilderness by those who don’t live there. But for those who live inside the Blue Line, the reality is different.

Like the rest of us, residents need to make a living and stay safe. But most also realize that the economy depends on the tourists — the sightseers as well as the hikers and skiers — who visit because of the wilderness.

Beyond the beauty of the Adirondack Park, in this era of climate change and environmental degradation, the stakes for preservation are that much higher.

So it was with great interest that we read the in-depth report released Sept. 5 on road-salt reduction. We last wrote on this page about road salt in 2020, the year the state legislature established a task force to review best management practices for safe winter driving.

The Salt Reduction Act was named for Randy Preston, a consummate Adirondacker. Born in Keene Valley, Preston served for years as Wilmington’s supervisor; he was also the long-time chief of its volunteer fire company.

When the road to Whiteface Mountain, Wilmington’s primary draw, was crumbling, he forged the relationships needed to have the highway rebuilt. He fought the brain cancer that killed him just as fiercely; he died at the age of 60.

The task force report, at its start, outlines a conundrum that would be familiar to Preston or to any Adirondacker and also serves as a metaphor for our modern era: the tension between protecting the safety of people and protecting the environment.

“On the one hand,” says the report, “the all-weather use of transportation corridors and privately owned paved surfaces is essential, and the application of road salt to roads and other surfaces to control ice and snow for the safety of the traveling public has become an established practice.

“On the other hand,” it goes on, “the protection of public health and the environment from contaminants is also essential, and the migration of road salt onto nearby lands and waters has detrimental effects on natural resources, humans, property, and infrastructure.”

The 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, with nearly half of it “forever wild,” typically has a longer snow and ice season than other parts of the state as well as sensitive ecosystems.

Road salt, which is 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride, rusts not just our vehicles but our bridges and the reinforcing rods in concrete. One study estimated that salt corrosion costs the United States $16 billion to $19 billion per year.

Salt wasn’t used on roads in the United States before World War II. And, since 1975, use of road salt has doubled. Besides being used on paved roads, road salt is applied to sidewalks, parking lots, and driveways.

The problems go beyond the damage to valuable infrastructure. Road salt accumulates in both surface and groundwater, which is harmful for humans as well as plants and animals. It can take decades for road salt to flush out of a watershed.

Besides the dangers of people drinking salty water, high chloride increases the corrosion of poisonous lead from old water pipes, according to research by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Geological Survey.

Any of us driving on major highways can see the effect salt has had on roadside vegetation, but we don’t often see more sinister effects. The environmental impact can be far-reaching and irreversible.

When the ice melts, the salt flows into surrounding streams, lakes, and grassy areas. The salt water is more dense than fresh water so it pools at the bottoms of lake and ocean beds. This deprives amphibians and fish of needed nutrients trapped beneath the salt cloud.

The task-force report notes that the environmental impact from road salt can be long-term as it can leach into groundwater. Existing water quality standards may not be protective enough to prevent impacts to the Adirondack Park’s sensitive natural resources and ecosystem, the task force found.

The task force reviewed potential pilot projects to evaluate and demonstrate the effectiveness of various road-salt reduction strategies, while still ensuring the reasonable safety of the traveling public, and recommended six be undertaken.

These include testing safety in chloride-free zones, using seasonal speed warnings to reduce salt-use rates, and establishing baseline standards for salt application.

In addition to the pilot programs, the task force also made these recommendations:

— Setting targets including new water-quality standards and environmental assessment and monitoring guidelines to help prevent and measure impacts to human health and the environment;

—  Management practices focusing on proven snow and ice-removal policies that reduce the overall quantity and frequency of salt applications while maintaining levels of service;

— Training for the workers who apply the salt as well as for the diversity of stakeholders who influence the rate and frequency of salt application;

— Funding to support road-salt reductions strategies, best management practices, public outreach campaigns, and responding to potential contamination;

— Access to data and information both for the public and for those working on the roads on the use of road salt across New York state to support decision-making and enhance transparency;

— Outreach campaigns to educate various target audiences on the impacts of road salt and the strategies that can be implemented to reduce road-salt usage while maintaining public safety; and

—  Rapid response to surface and groundwater contamination so the public will be assured there are clear mechanisms for investigations into potential contamination and a pathway to remediate identified contamination of their drinking water supplies.

Yes, much of this will take money. But the funds would be well spent since they will protect human safety now and environmental safety for the long run.

And some practices, as we noted earlier, are a matter of changing behaviors or learning new strategies rather than spending money. A Cornell program, for example, examined the effectiveness of salt treated with a liquid chloride solution and correlated it to truck speed and salt distribution systems.

Two salt types — treated and untreated — were compared as were two distribution systems, and three truck speeds: 25, 35, and 45 miles per hour. Treated salt performed significantly better at all speeds and through both distribution systems. A cross-conveyor type of distribution performed slightly better than a Y-chute system.

However, truck speed had the most profound effect on how much salt was lost to bounce and scatter. A truck driving at 25 miles per hour lost only 9 percent; a truck at 35 miles per hour lost 32 percent, and a truck driving at 45 miles per hour lost 45 percent of its salt to bounce and scatter.

Clearly, highway departments that follow the results of this study — distributing treated salt at 25 miles per hour — will not just reduce salt waste but will reduce the resulting road and vehicle deterioration as well as doing less harm to the environment.

A variety of other tactics are being tried by highway departments across the nation. Many are using a 23-percent salt-brine solution to pre-treat roads before the start of a storm, which may result in a 75-percent savings in total salt applied.

Some departments are pre-wetting salt before putting it on the roads, which can reduce salt infiltration to aquifers by 5 percent and also reduces spray and kick-up of salt grains.

Several states adjust levels of service for conditions. In Vermont, for instance, the transportation department uses the slogan “safe roads at safe speeds,” meaning roads are not necessarily bare after a snowstorm.

In Minnesota, the department of transportation is pioneering the use of what it calls “living snow fences,” barriers made of trees, shrubs, and native grasses that can prevent snow from drifting onto roads.

Many departments are using agro-based alternatives for de-icing although salt is the active ingredient in most of them. These include cheese and pickle brines; fermentation products from making beer and wine; and desugared molasses, a byproduct of sugar beet producing, known as beet juice.

Beet juice lowers freezing temperature and melts ice as the sugar it contains dissolves on the road but the sugar is a fertilizer that feeds algae growth.

Research is also underway that may one day make road salt obsolete — for example, solar panels embedded in pavement are being tried in parking lots in the state of Washington. In Europe, under-road heating systems keep some highways free of snow.

In the meantime, as these and other innovations are still in their experimental stages and may never become cost-effective solutions, we urge our local highway departments to stay on top of the most efficient systems for distribution of salt and we stress that each of us can, when winter arrives, make a difference in how we handle the ice and snow at our own homes or businesses.

We should use deicers sparingly. If we shovel snow as soon as it falls, and keep on shoveling as it comes down, it won’t have a chance to turn icy.

Once snow starts to melt and turn to slush, we should remove the slush before it turns to hard ice again.

We can use beet juice, coffee grounds, or sawdust — all of which will create traction without being as damaging as salt.

We like to think that Randy Preston — a practical man who cared about the Adirondacks and got things done — would be pleased with the task force’s report. And, if we work together, each of us doing our part, we may reach a shared pinnacle, just the way the restored Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway affords everyone a wider view.

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