Sunday, September 21, 2014

Adirondack Road Salt Alternatives Sought

SnowplowA conference at Paul Smith’s College this week led to the formation of a working group that will look at alternatives to applying road-salt on local roads.

The all-volunteer group, which is still being finalized, will study the costs of alternative de-icers and their impact on roads, bridges, and water quality. It will also examine roads in the Adirondacks to see where sunlight could be used to assist with snow and ice removal. It will identify funding sources for further studies of groundwater contamination, salt toxicity, public education, and training of state and municipal employees.

The group is expected to include members of local and state highway departments, environmental groups, local elected officials, and scientists.

“The towns, the villages, the counties, the state are not talking together at the strategic level the way we think they should,” said Lee Keet of “We’re going to try to organize it so they talk to each other regularly and compare notes and techniques and maybe cut back on the costs.”

The road-salt conference was organized by Paul Smith’s College, Adirondack Council and The gathering included scientific presentations from Dan Kelting, executive director of the college’s Adirondack Watershed Institute, and Stuart Findlay, an aquatic ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook. David Wieder of the Colorado Department of Transportation talked about alternative approaches to sodium chloride (road salt), including using liquid magnesium chloride as a prime ingredient. New York State DOT representatives talked about different methods they have used in recent years. There were also discussions about the legal aspect of road safety. More than 80 people attended the conference.

“I think we need to figure out a way to take your show on the road,” Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston said.

Studies from Findlay and Kelting on waterways found that road salt is staying in the environment longer than either had expected.

“There are several patterns that we see that makes it obvious that salt does not move quickly out of the environment,” said Findlay, whose work is based in Dutchess County. “It’s somehow staying around, either in the soils, in the shallow groundwater, something like that.”

He found that levels were especially high in August, which is when groundwater is the main source of for many streams and rivers.

“In the summer, most organisms are at their peak activities,” Findlay said. “It’s when the water’s the warmest. For a lot of things, that’s the reproductive season.”

Kelting’s study started two winters ago and is focused on measuring salt concentrations in Adirondack streams near roads. He said that early findings have shown that some streams have concentrations of chloride that are similar to what would be found in an urban environment. He said that could be especially troublesome in the Adirondacks because the environment has a low chloride content naturally.

“So when we increase the chloride, we double it, we triple it, we would hypothesize scientifically that that would have a negative impact, and that negative impact happens at a much lower chloride concentration than happens in southern New York or Massachusetts or somewhere else,” Kelting said.

Many participants seem to agree that the road-salt issue concerns people with a wide range of interests, from car owners to environmentalists. But to make changes to the current policies will still be difficult.

“It’s going to be hard,” Keet said. “We will be asking DOT to change some of their road-design standards. We’ll be asking the towns and villages to start thinking about changing their current practices of using sand and salt. We’ll be asking the environmental groups to give up on the idea that you don’t cut a tree, especially if it’s within the existing right-of-way, where it’s legally possible to cut the trees. Nobody should object if the net gain is safety and reduced use of salt.”

Follow-up actions for the working group will include engaging the Common Ground Alliance, the Adirondack Research Consortium, regional educational institutions, and the North Country Regional Economic Development. A five-year plan to adopt new technologies was suggested, including additional test runs to try techniques used elsewhere, including those used by Colorado.

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Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues. Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake. Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at

16 Responses

  1. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    A great test site would be the corner of NYS Rtes 8 & 28 in Wevertown. Blasting to make way for NYS Rt 8 in the 1930s exposed a rock fault and over-salting of the road by the state has impacted the ground water there and along Mill Creek, a trout stream.

  2. Jim McCulley says:

    It would be great if the towns and villages would join to reduce the salt use. The Village of Lake Placid spends more money per flake of snow then any where in the world. (sarc) Instead of the winter wonderland they try to portrait we look like Mudville from all the salt on the side streets that have a 30mph maximum. So why do they need to be dry pavement?

  3. Randy says:

    Sand works like a dream and the Adirondacks are already largely made of it!!!!!!!

    • Phil MaCracken says:

      How does sand work like a dream? Sand has ZERO snow and ice melting abilities. And if they did use straight sand, the ditches and culverts would become so full it would run off into the same streams and rivers they are trying to protect.

      • Paul says:

        They have used straight sand in the past in Saranac Lake. It doesn’t run off. In the spring you have to sweep it up (and then maybe use it again the next winter?).

        We have plows why do we need to “melt” it off the roads? You will find lots of private roads where they are simply plowed and sanded and no salt is ever used. The same could work on the public roads.

        • Phil MaCracken says:

          I highly doubt Saranac Lake ever used straight sand. The roads would be an icy mess. But I wasn’t there so I can only speculate. If using sand exclusively was an option why are all the DOT’s and DPW’s not using it and just plowing it off?

          • Paul says:

            They must to use salt because of the “dry pavement” policy Jim describes in his comment.

            Prior to around 1980 that was not required. So places like SL that didn’t mind having a little snow on the roads could plow well and use sand to add a little more traction.

            Like I said just like you see on miles of private roads. You do have to slow down. But with good snow tires not much.

            • Phil MaCracken says:

              The use of salt (sodium chloride), liquid magnesium chloride and other deicing agents are to prevent snow and ice from bonding to the road surface. Prior to 1980 they were spreading sand and salt by hand out the back of truck. So yes there was no “dry pavement” policy because they couldn’t provide one.
              The state does not have a “dry” or bare roads policy. If there is I would like to see it. The belief that there is a bare roads policy is the exact reason why you can not go back to using sand. People would never accept it. You really think every person who travels to the adirondacks is going to slow down and buy snow tires? Or carry a set of tire chains? The reason this article was even printed was because people want their cake and eat it too. People are going to travel to the adirondacks and do it as fast as possible. And they want clear roads to travel on.

              • Paul says:

                I don’t understand what you are trying to say here? Want their cake and eat it too?? Snow tires are mandatory in Quebec why not in these areas that actually get more snow?

                • Phil MaCracken says:

                  People want to travel about the Adirondacks (their cake). Without the need for a second set of tires or chains (eat it too). 21st century travellers are not going to go backwards. Can you realistically believe a group of people traveling to the Adirondacks, from say NYC, stopping at the Adirondack Park line to have snow tires mounted on?

  4. Bob says:

    What happened to the idea of using auto safety glass from recycled cars.It won’t damage the environment or automobile tires it will simply turn into dust over a short period of time.

  5. Phil MaCracken says:

    There are many alternatives to salt. It all boils down to money. Salt alternatives will cost 2-3 times more than regular road salt. I can not see NYS spending more money than they have to. If the APA is so concerned with protecting it’s ecosystems, why don’t they help fund some of the alternatives? I’m sure the state will (gladly) spread it if the APA pays for it.

  6. Steve says:

    In regard to taking advantage of winter sunlight to help keep roadways ice free by trimming or cutting down trees, it’s a wonderful idea, but I predict that the environmental groups won’t go along with it. They seem to regularly want everyone else to compromise without ever giving an inch themselves. Remember the fiasco just a few years ago when DOT did exactly this along the Route 3 corridor in the name of highway safety.

  7. troutstalker says:

    When I lived in Piseco they treated the roads with liquid calcium only to find it contaminating not just the stream but the water wells also. Years ago before salt they used sand and cinders. The people use safety as an excuse to get bare roads so they can drive faster when in fact it would be safer to use sand and slow down. They are in a hurry and don’t know why! SLOW DOWN AND ENJOY THE SCENERY!

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