Will we take action on road salt?

State Route 73 winds through a mountain pass beside the Cascade lakes between Lake Placid and Keene. Road salt has been blamed for killing birch trees that once lined the road on the lake side. (Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)

Seeing salt on the road may help winter drivers feel safe, but it comes at a price. It has become abundantly clear that our state’s addiction to road salt has caused widespread harm to our environment and to ourselves.

This week, a historic state-issued report was released confirming the negative impact of road salt on the Adirondacks’ aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as human health and property.

The report is the result of the 2020 Randy Preston Road Salt Reduction Act, and was originally intended to be completed by September 2021, but faced a series of delays that led to the release of the report a full two years later. The legislation, which was sponsored by state Assemblyman Billy Jones and state Sen. Timothy Kennedy, established an Adirondack Road Salt Task Force. These subject matter experts and state agency leaders convened to review the best practices and breadth of knowledge accumulated about road salt across the Adirondack Park.

Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force Assessment and Recommendations details the origins of our oversalting predicament and its widespread, multidimensional impacts, and raises the need for Adirondack-specific metrics to define how much salt is too much. The recommendations include increased public education, transparency, widespread distribution of best management practices, and enhanced training in snow and ice removal. Six actionable pilot projects are also recommended for specific implementation.

I applaud the Road Salt Reduction Task Force for its work: Balancing the need to support our highway departments and keep our roads safe, with the need for aligned incentives around smart salting to protect public health, natural resources, and all homeowners’ bottom line.

While those of us who work everyday to reduce road salt in the Adirondacks are celebrating this long-awaited milestone, we know that this is not the finish line. Monumenting our concerns at the state level is a significant step in the right direction — a requisite process for making state-level change — but the next steps will prove the more difficult. Road salt is an overwhelming issue of specific concern in the Adirondacks, and as this report shows, there’s a whole lot more we could be doing about it. Thankfully, in the two years spent waiting for the report’s release, much progress has already been made.

AdkAction’s Clean Water, Safe Roads Partnership is already working to bring highway departments together with leading technical experts, WIT Advisers, for sustainable snow and ice removal training, creating a learning community for practical salt and sand reduction. As recommended by the report, our partnership supports departments to set goals for chloride reduction, and provide training and best management practices for salt application to achieve these goals.

This fall, AdkAction and our partners will be launching a public outreach and education campaign that aligns with the report’s recommendation to garner support for reduced salt practices by the many different sectors of our population. Thanks to support from North Elba Local Enhancement and Advancement Fund, this campaign will help ensure the region and its visitors understand the impacts of road salt and opportunities for improvement.

Road salt is also an environmental justice issue. Those with the fewest means bear the greatest burden when their wells are contaminated by salt. The study AdkAction funded with Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute helps to better understand private well contamination. The Task Force report recommends a clearer process to file and verify a road salt contamination complaint, and financial support to assist those who qualify for recommendation assistance.

I commend each of the task force members — including former AdkAction Executive Director Brittany Christenson and Phil Sexton of WIT Advisers who works with the Clean Water, Safe Roads Partnership — and our agency partners willing to rise to the occasion of their office, building consensus needed to make progress on a wicked, interconnected problem that affects us all. AdkAction extends its gratitude to Basil Seggos, DEC commissioner; to Marie Therese Dominguez, DOT commissioner; and all representation by the New York state Department of Health and Adirondack Park Agency.

Each new initiative will require the leveraging of existing, or creation of new, financial resources. Many of the recommendations within the report could help reduce road salt contamination at its source, which is typically the most cost-effective approach. I call upon the state to bring these ideas to action by funding opportunities to make tangible progress on these pilots so that together we can take these ideas from the pages of a report to the roadways of the Park. We cannot do it without additional support.

We’ve been saying it for over a decade, but now we are speaking with a collective voice: Road salt pollution is a problem, and it’s one we can solve. Let’s fund solutions. Let’s take action together. We have more distance to travel, and it’s time to take our next steps.

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Sawyer Bailey is executive director of AdkAction, a Keeseville-based 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to create innovative projects that address unmet needs, promote vibrant communities, and preserve the natural beauty of the Adirondacks for all.


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