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Time for Cuomo to ‘hold the salt’

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

Those of us who live in the North Country know how harsh the winters can be. Our road managers have a great responsibility to keep our roads open and safe for emergency responders, school buses and commuters to travel. Unfortunately, the current strategies for keeping our roads open for winter travel are coming at a cost.

A recent study by the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College found that in a test of over 500 private drinking water wells, more than half exceeded safe sodium levels, and more than a quarter exceeded safe chloride levels established by the federal government. Though this water is salty, it is not salty enough to taste, meaning that many have unknowingly subjected themselves to increased risk high blood pressure, kidney and heart problems. Once salt is in a water supply, it would take hundreds or even thousands of years to get better, assuming we stopped salt use all together.

When road salt is used in high amounts, it washes off our roadways into nearby lakes and ponds and seeps into the ground. It makes nearby drinking water sources unsafe, causes harm to fish and wildlife and corrodes our road safety infrastructure. On top of it all, it is very expensive. New York state spent roughly $16 million on salt for the Adirondacks in 2019 and more than $70 million statewide. The costs of corrosion on our infrastructure and vehicles have been estimated to total more than $20,000 per lane-mile of road per year. This is effectively a hidden tax on the people of this state.

So how do we solve this problem? Local governments in the Adirondack region are already leading the way. Municipalities in the Lake George region have already tested alternative strategies with improved technology, driver training, alternative deicers, slowed application speeds, modern plowing equipment and vehicle telemetry. They quickly found that they could provide safe driving conditions using far less taxpayer money. Perhaps New York state can learn a few lessons from our leaders in local government. State roads comprise one quarter of all of the roads in the Adirondacks, but the state is responsible for three-quarters of the salt applied in total. New York uses more salt than any state in the union.

Sens. Tim Kennedy and Betty Little worked with Assemblyman Billy Jones to pass legislation (A.8767-a, S.8663-a) creating an Adirondack Road Reduction Task Force and Pilot Program, named in honor of the late Wilmington supervisor and staunch advocate for salt reduction, Randy Preston. This task force would bring together state agencies and experts to create a smart path forward to reduce road salt pollution while keeping our roads safe in winter.

Gov. Cuomo has staked his Adirondack legacy on a boosted tourism economy. He has also stood on his achievements in protecting public health curing the COVID-19 pandemic. Clean water is the backbone of the tourism economy in the Adirondacks, with than 12 million people visit the Adirondacks each year to enjoy our pristine lakes, rivers and streams. If left unchecked for much longer, road salt pollution could lead to widespread public health challenges for New Yorkers, proving difficult and expensive to deal with.

I trust Gov. Cuomo will make the right choice and sign this bill into law.

Bill Owens is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving the North Country in that capacity from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Plattsburgh, where he is a partner at the Stafford Owens law firm.

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