The New York state Legislature has passed a measure that will create a pilot program to reduce the use of road salt in the Adirondacks.
More than 190,000 tons of road salt are used annually in the Adirondacks. The pine trees going brown along the roadside are due to road salt contamination. But the salt also ends up in waterways including lakes, rivers and drinking water systems.
The Adirondack Watershed Institute in 2019 studied 500 wells situated downhill from state roads. It found 64 percent exceeded federal sodium limits.
Ausable River Association Science and Stewardship Director Brendan Wiltse has been studying the impact of road salt on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid. “Road salt’s really been growing in terms of an issue that needs to be addressed not just in New York state but across North America. And so this is a positive step forward to move the state in the right direction in terms of reducing their salt use. And the issue with road salt is obviously an environmental issue but increasingly we’re finding out that it’s potentially a human health issue with contamination of ground water supplies that people rely on for drinking.”
The Randy Preston Road Salt Reduction Act creates a task force that will submit recommendations to reduce the use of salt in September 2021. A three-year salt reduction pilot then occurs beginning in October 2021 to test the alternatives. Adirondack Council spokesperson John Sheehan: “We want to see A: that the road remains safe for the public to travel on and B: that the methods being used reduce significantly the amount of salt being used or you know someday we’d like to get rid of it entirely. But in the meantime really what we’re trying to do is get the best methods established and get them working everywhere in the Park not just in the test areas.”
Sheehan says it’s critical to get a handle on the problem as soon as possible especially since it is now impacting drinking water resources. “We’re also seeing very heavy salt content getting into the groundwater around the Park. And once you create saltwater in an aquifer it takes a long long time, sometimes centuries, for that to go away. We really don’t want to have the health problems that are associated with water that’s got too much sodium in it.”
Several localities have already implemented salt reduction pilots. North Elba near Lake Placid tested the use of sand on selected roads and speed limits have been reduced on Route 86 near Whiteface Mountain. Wiltse says the state could consider a number of techniques to reduce the use and impact of road salt. “There’s no silver bullet. One of the first things is for DOT to start really measuring the amount of salt that they’re applying behind their trucks. And they are doing this on the pilot program areas that they’ve been running now for two winter seasons. And then there’s new plow technology that allows for more efficient removal of snow and ice which means they have to put less material down behind the truck. And then there’s brining technology which means that you put the salt down in a liquid form instead of a solid form and that reduces the amount of scatter off of the road surface. All of these things there are practical considerations and the task force should help the state.”
The legislation is named after the late Randy Preston, who was co-chair of the Adirondack Road Salt Working Group. He also served as Wilmington Town Supervisor and chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors.