Lawmakers add a pinch of road salt legislation

From left, state Sen. Betty Little, Assemblyman Billy Jones and Assemblyman Dan Stec speak about the “Randy Preston Salt Reduction Act” in Saranac Lake Friday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — Assemblymen Billy Jones and Dan Stec and state Sen. Betty Little were in town Friday to introduce the “Randy Preston Salt Reduction Act,” proposed legislation that aims to reduce road salt contamination on Adirondack roads.

Jones, D-Plattsburgh, Stec, R-Queensbury, and Little, R-Queensbury, said the bill would establish the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force and direct the state departments of Transportation, Environmental Conservation and Health to conduct a three-year road salt application reduction pilot program on every state road in the park.

Jones said it is not yet clear exactly what this pilot program would entail. The task force’s recommendations would be due by Sept. 1, 2021.

Jones also said it is not yet clear how much the pilot program will cost, but purchasing new equipment for plows should be offset by reduces spending on salt and infrastructure, as well as reduced wear on cars’ undersides.

The bill is named after Randy Preston, who had been the Wilmington town supervisor for around a decade when he died in July. Jones called Preston a “champion of this issue” and said he had been involved in a group in Albany focusing on road salt reduction.

Seasonal pollution

Salt used on roads to give cars more friction in the icy months does not stay on the roads. It runs off and seeps into lakes, streams and wells.

Citing a recent study from the Adirondack Watershed Institute, Jones said of 500 Adirondacks wells tested, 64% of these downhill from state roads were found to have sodium levels exceeding the federally recommended health limit of 20 parts per million, as well as 250 ppm over the recommended levels of chloride, with some reaching around 1,000 ppm.

Jones said everyone needs clean drinking water, but those who have salt-contaminated wells are “suffering” and living a “nightmare.” The polluted water is unfit to drink, or even to use to wash dishes or clothes.

Jones said he hopes the state can financially compensate residents with contaminated wells.

“They’re living in a hell in their own homes,” Jones said.

Mark Plumadore, the dog control officer in the town of Saranac, was attending the meeting and said his son’s new house is affected by the salt contamination. He said he hauls 450 gallons of water to his son’s new house every two days to fill a tank they use instead of their well.

He said the DOT has listened to his plight but that action needs to be taken to remedy the problem.

“DOT has not turned a blind eye on us,” Plumadore said.

Saranac town Councilman Gerald Delaney said that while most press is focused on wells, streams and lakes, in Saranac, the issue is the aquifers. Jones said he hopes the bill can address the aquifers as well, but that it will be a long-term issue.

“Even if we stopped using salt totally today,” Jones said. “It would take years and years and years and years and years to clean out the salt contamination from our aquifers.”

Finding solutions

Little said there is plenty of state money for clean drinking and groundwater. She said support needs to come from the governor, DOT and DEC.

That was the reason for the press conference, she said, as well as public education on salt reduction. She said lowering speed limits in low-salt areas has been helpful, and though it might be frustrating to be stuck behind a row of slow-moving plows on the Adirondack Northway, people have to realize that these steps need to be taken to stop the damaging pollution of waterways and wells.

“Give yourself an extra 10 to 15 minutes on the road,” Jones said. “You don’t have to go 70 miles an hour.”

Stec, who is also the co-chair of the Assembly Republicans’ task force on water quality, said local highway departments have already recognized the issue and are making changes to reduce road salt’s impact on water.

“If New York state has the courage to tackle climate change, we should also have the courage to tackle the salt issue,” Jones said.

Stec said the biggest obstacle facing the legislation is “human nature.”

“It’s inertia. It’s habit,” he said.

He said the habit of “We’ve always done it this way” has to be broken.

He said the goal of the legislation is to find a balance between public safety and environmental health.

Jones said the bill is not meant to antagonize the DOT, which is responsible for plowing and salting.

“We’re not doing this to be adversarial to the DOT; we want to work hand in hand with the DOT,” Jones said.

Stec said the DOT likely is looking to reduce liability and avoid a lawsuit over icy road conditions, but that the state has to take measures to keep salt use under harmful levels.

Jones said safety is still a “top priority.”

Little said some solutions have worked, like clearing tree canopy to allow more sun to hit the road, while others have not, like mixing molasses in with road salt — which left clumps of salt stuck to the road and attracted deer.