Road salt reduction report released

State Route 421 (the Horseshoe Lake road) south of Tupper Lake is coated in salt amid warm, sunny weather following snowfall in early November 2020. (Provided photo — Kathy O’Kane)

The state’s Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force released a 27-page report on Tuesday, the result of two years of research, which gives a clearer image on the extent of damage road salt has caused to the environment, human infrastructure and health in the Adirondack Park, while proposing several paths to study solutions and reduce road salt application in the coming years.

This report was delayed by two years. It was initially supposed to be released in 2021. All the while, according to the report, an estimated 193,000 tons of road salt are dumped on 8,830 miles of paved roads annually in the Adirondacks during winter. It’s used to make roads safe in snowy and icy conditions, creating friction on the slippery paths. But it’s also a seasonal pollutant. It doesn’t stay on the roads. It runs off into waterways and wells, where its sodium content can have corrupting effects — altering aquatic life, making well water undrinkable, rusting out houses’ plumbing and appliances and rusting vehicles.

The report recommends the creation of an Adirondack Park Road Salt Reduction Pilot Program. State Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez said the DOT is currently evaluating new areas within the Adirondack Park to conduct salt reduction pilot programs this coming winter. Some of these locations are in Lake Placid and Lake Clear.

The full report can be viewed at tinyurl.com/9u2fhy65.

More research recommended

The report calls for the state to fund ongoing DOT and Lake George pilot programs on state routes 86 and 9N, in Warren County and the town of Hague to determine best practices and standards to be recommended parkwide.

It also calls for new pilot program locations on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid and on St. Regis Lake and Lake Clear, which are bordered by state Route 30 and local town roads.

The DOT has run a road salt reduction pilot program along Mirror Lake and state Route 86 for many years, but the status of that pilot was unclear on Tuesday evening.

The report calls for the development of several “proof of concept” models — one to manage “cold spots” through selective vegetation management as an alternative to excessive road salt, another to investigate chloride-free deicing alternatives, and another to create weather warning signage telling motorists to reduce their speed in areas where road salt application is reduced.

There are a slate of alternatives to traditional road salt, but all have drawbacks. Some are more corrosive than the current practice, others have other environmental or performance drawbacks. The reports said these alternatives should be studied extensively before being used. It proposes “chloride-free zones” be established in areas near Mirror Lake in Lake Placid and around Lake Clear to test using alternatives in low traffic areas and research the change in environmental impact.

It also suggests testing out seasonal speed reduction zones with signs warning motorists, but did not list areas where these could be implemented.

One thing the group suggests is maintaining roads better. A road free of potholes is easier to clear of snow than one full of surface deficiencies.

The cold spot management would involve cutting back coniferous trees from the roadside to thin the canopy, which creates shade on roads and allows for more ice build-up. This concept is complicated by the “Forever Wild” clause of the state constitution, however, which the report acknowledges.

These solutions will need money from local, state and federal governments, the report says. It suggests the state provide funding for local municipalities to take on best practices and that it funds water quality testing of private wells.

The group suggests the state establish long-term water quality monitoring stations to track progress by gathering data.

The report suggests training programs to educate highway crews on best application practices. It also suggests educating the public on the harms of current road salt practices, getting support for new practices, informing motorists of areas where these are being tried out and trying to get private property owners to implement similar salt reduction practices.

The report suggests requiring major public and commercial snow and ice removers to report the amount of road salt they use and their methods for removal.

Extent of the salt

There are 8,830 total lane-miles of paved roads in the Adirondack Park, 29% of which are maintained by the state DOT, and 71% of which are maintained by local municipalities.

The report estimates that 193,000 tons of road salt are applied annually during winters in the Adirondacks, 44% to local roads and 56% to state roads.

This comes to an average of 34 tons of road salt per lane-mile on state roads and 13 tons per lane-mile on local roads. The difference, it says, is in the rate of use — state highways account for 71% of all vehicle-miles traveled in the Adirondack Park, and typically are traveled at higher speeds.

The Adirondack Council, an Elizabethtown-based environmental advocacy group, estimates that more than 6 million tons of road salt have been spread on Adirondack highways since the practice began in 1980.

The report estimates that 28% of Adirondack rivers and streams — 3,687 miles worth — and 7% of Adirondack lakes and ponds — 820 of them — have the potential to receive road salt-laden runoff.

Once dissolved, around half of the salt runs off into surface waters through snow melt and stormwater. The rest of it, on land, continues to leach into surface and groundwaters throughout the warmer months.

Road salt is sodium chloride. Both of these are harmful to natural life and corrosive to metals.

Environmental effects

Road salt tends to change the composition of species in the natural waters it infiltrates toward more “salt-tolerant” species, “altering the makeup of communities that form the basis of the aquatic food web.”

According to the report, this can lead to an overall decrease in the productivity of freshwater ecosystems, reducing the overall species abundance, or in cases where there are particularly high chloride concentrations, direct mortality of aquatic organisms.

When sodium and chloride get deeper, their concentrations can increase and cause oxygen depletion, triggering the release of phosphorus from sediments, and possibly causing cyanobacteria blooms.

Road salt can also potentially increase mobilization of trace metals such as cadmium, lead, copper, iron or zinc, which have been demonstrated to accumulate in fish.

In roadside soils, salt can be absorbed by plants, deplete soils of essential nutrients or cause them to take on heavy metals. This can result in “reduced plant vigor or even the death of plants along salted roads.”

“These effects can be observed along roadsides where application of road salt is heaviest, with premature loss of leaves (defoliation), discoloration (yellowing), suppression of flowering, premature mortality, and poor regeneration,” according to the report.

This encourages the establishment and expansion of non-native vegetation that possess higher salt tolerances than native vegetation.

“These changes in plant communities can have cascading impacts,” the report reads.

The report uses water quality standards of 20 milligrams per liter of sodium in groundwater and 250 mg/L of chloride in groundwater and surface water.

The median chloride concentration in lakes and ponds away from paved roads was measured at 0.3 mg/L. Those getting road runoff had a median chloride concentration of 0.9 mg/L. Lakes and ponds getting runoff from state roads had a significantly higher chloride concentration — 18.7 mg/L.

For rivers and streams, the median chloride concentration away from paved roads was also measured at 0.3 mg/L. Rivers and streams getting runoff from local roads had a median chloride concentration of 2.0 mg/L, while those getting runoff from state roads had a higher median chloride concentration at 24.6 mg/L.

While most monitored waterbodies in the Adirondack Park met existing regulatory guidelines for contaminants typically found near road salt applications, a limited number exceeded regulatory guidelines for human and environmental health.

The report says task force members with subject matter expertise found that more recent scientific literature shows that existing state and federal water quality standards are not protective enough for the Adirondack Park’s sensitive ecosystem, and that the park might require more protective limitations to prevent further deterioration of water, wildlife and environment.

“The combination of shallow bedrock, thin soils, and mountainous terrain makes the Adirondack Park an area where the effects of road salt may be observed before other areas,” the report reads.

The report recommends establishing new standards and guidelines, saying the state should adopt the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s chloride water quality criteria to establish a minimum level for protection from salt contamination for aquatic life, and establish a targeted road salt reduction goal of 40 mg/L concentration of chloride in most lakes.

Human impacts

The presence of sodium in drinking water is typically only problematic for individuals who have low-salt or limited-salt dietary restrictions from high blood pressure, heart diseases, and kidney or liver diseases.

Sodium also corrodes the metals we build our water pipes from — lead, copper, iron and steel. The study estimates that 43,273 private residential wells are on properties adjacent to paved roads.

An estimated 16,985 Adirondack homeowners — 31% of them — may be experiencing corrosive damage to plumbing, fixtures, and connected appliances from sodium in their well water, according to the report. Most of these homes — 73% of them — were built before lead was prohibited on plumbing, so road salt infiltration may corrode harmful lead into their drinking water.

A 2019 study by the Adirondack Watershed Institute found that of 500 Adirondacks wells tested, 64% of those downhill from state roads were found to have sodium levels exceeding the federally recommended health limit.

In the Adirondack source water supplies, 5% of the groundwater sampling locations exceeded the water quality standard for chloride. None of the surface water locations did.

No surface water systems within the Adirondack Park reported chloride concentrations greater than the standards, However, 9% of groundwater sourced water systems exceeded the chloride standards in raw water, which reduced to 7% in treated groundwater.

“Approximately 40% of Adirondack Park groundwater systems reported concentrations in both raw and treated water samples exceeding the 20 mg/L severely restricted sodium diet notification level,” according to the report. “Only 6% of reported raw or finished (treated) water concentrations exceeded the 270 mg/L moderately restricted sodium diet notification level.”

The task force is co-chaired by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and New York State Department of Transportation with representation by the state Department of Health and Adirondack Park Agency. There are also 10 governor-appointed members — Brittany Christenson, Chris Navitsky, Dan Kelting, Gerald Delaney, Joe Martens, Kevin Hajos, Kristine Stepenuck, Phillip Sexton, Robert Kafin and Tracy Eldridge.


“I am proud to have authored the bill that created this task force,” Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, said in a statement. “The next important step for the state is to ensure they allocate funding to support the task force’s recommendations and assist homeowners and other dwellings impacted by known sources of road salt contamination.”

“The Adirondack Council has looked forward to this day since 2009, when we issued a plea for state government to take action called ‘Low-Sodium Diet: Curbing New York’s Appetite for Damaging Road Salt,'” Adirondack Council Executive Director Raul Aguirre said in a statement.

He said the next step is to “turn encouraging words into effective action.”

Adirondack Council Director of Government Relations Kevin Chlad suggested Gov. Kathy Hochul can ensure swifter action by appointing an oversight committee of citizens and agency personnel to implement the task force’s recommendations, “rather than leave this task to already overburdened current state agency personnel alone.”


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