The NYS Senate granted final approval Thursday to a bi-partisan bill that would help reduce road salt pollution and protect drinking water in the Adirondack Park.
The legislation creates an Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force and Pilot Program. If approved by the Governor, the new law would establish a salt-reduction pilot program from October 2021 through 2024 to test alternative measures already shown to work better and cost less than current winter road maintenance practices. Highway safety would remain the top priority.
The Adirondack Park contains more than 11,000 lakes and ponds, and more than 30,000 miles of rivers, brook and streams and is the source of most of the state’s rivers. The park’s hard bedrock, thin soils and steep slopes make it the place where road salt damage – like acid rain damage — is likely to appear first. Lessons learned in the Adirondacks can be applied statewide in the years ahead.
The bill was passed in honor of the late Randy Preston, who served as Wilmington Town Supervisor until his untimely death from brain cancer one year ago. Preston helped to rally local government support for protecting the park’s drinking water, lakes and rivers from road salt.
“Drinking water across the Adirondacks has been compromised by road salt contamination,” said Dan Kelting of the Adirondack Watershed Institute. “Our testing shows a strong correlation between salty water and state-maintained highways. The state is applying about 37 tons of salt per road lane mile right now. That is not sustainable from an environmental and human health perspective.”
“Salt-contaminated drinking water is a serious public health hazard for people with high blood pressure and other health conditions,” said Brittany Christenson of AdkAction, a regional project-driven nonprofit that has been pressing for a reduction in road salt pollution for nearly a decade. “When it strikes a private well, that can become a costly crisis for local families as they need to buy bottled water and replace appliances, pipes, and even drill a new well. As salt contamination gets worse, it can affect entire community water supplies. We have seen salt damage spread too far already.”
“Lakes, rivers and wildlife will continue to be compromised if road salt pollution is not addressed now,” said William C. Janeway, Executive Director of the Adirondack Council. “We have already seen salty bottom layers develop on lakes very close to highways and downtowns. Roadside trees are taking a beating from runoff and salt spray as snow melts and car tires spread it around. As those trees die, erosion and water pollution accelerate.”
“Mirror Lake is one of just a handful of lakes that has had the natural turnover process interrupted by an accumulation of salt at the bottom of the lake,” said Dr. Brendan Wiltse of the Ausable River Association. The lack of turnover results in low-oxygen at the lake bottom, threatening the native lake trout found in the lake and making it more susceptible to harmful algal blooms.”
“The health of Mirror Lake and several other waterbodies, so essential to wildlife and to our recreational economy, are in decline due to road-salt,” said Kelley Tucker of the Ausable River Association. “Heavy salt-laden water reduces oxygen levels for aquatic organisms and prevents the natural mixing activity of lakes – setting them on a dangerous downward trajectory. Stream and lake health depend on our ability to act to reduce road salt inputs.”
“The Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force and Pilot Program will help New York find new ways to keep our roads safe in the cold weather while protecting clean drinking water and ensuring our lakes and rivers are healthy for the people and nature who depend on them. The Nature Conservancy applauds Senator Betty Little, Senator Tim Kennedy, and Assemblyman Billy Jones for championing this legislation,” said Peg Olsen, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter.
“On top of all the adverse health effects that comes with sodium, chloride from road salt can also corrode metals and damage plumbing. This corrosion can cause lead from pipes to leach into drinking water. New York needs a strong plan to protect water and reduce road salt. This legislation is a good start,” said Robert Hayes, Clean Water Associate at Environmental Advocates NY.
Patrick McClellan, Policy Director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said, “Reducing road salt in Adirondack Park would help improve water quality and decrease pollution in one of our state’s most beautiful greenspaces. We thank the State Senate and Assembly for passing this important legislation and commend Senator Kennedy and Assemblyman Jones for their leadership.”
“This legislation is a significant step toward addressing the water contamination issue in the Adirondack Park. We are excited to see how this study and pilot program will not only benefit the park, but ultimately all of New York State,” said Michael Barrett Executive Director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
The bill (S.8663-A/A.8767-A) was sponsored by Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay. The bill passed the Assembly on July 20.
In addition to damaging cars and roadways, road salt corrodes bridges and parking structures. Repair, maintenance and replacement of road infrastructure corroded by road salt costs are estimated to cost $18,563 per land-mile per year. Repair, maintenance and depreciation of motor vehicles from road salt corrosion amounts to an estimated $3,416 per lane-mile per year. As salt leaches into groundwater, it is making streams saltier in the summer and is releasing heavy metals and other toxins from sources that would otherwise remain harmless, the Watershed Institute’s tests have shown.
Preliminary results from pilot salt reduction efforts in the Lake George Region have demonstrated in excess of a 30% drop in salt expenses. Roughly $16 million is spent on road salt in the Adirondacks each year.
This new legislation directs the Dept. of Transportation and Dept. of Environmental Conservation and the Dept. of Health to cooperate in a three-year Adirondack Park wide road salt application reduction pilot.
According to the bill:
“The Task Force report and recommendations shall be due September 1, 2021. The task force shall recommend Adirondack state road winter maintenance practices to remediate salt contamination of our surface and ground waters.
“The Adirondack Road Salt Task Force recommendations for updated levels of service, best management practices, and road salt reduction targets shall guide the Departments of Transportation, Health, and Environmental Conservation in measurably reducing sodium and chloride levels in both surface and ground waters.”
The groups thanked the bill’s original Senate sponsor Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, who gave up the top spot to Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Kennedy. His majority status made Senate passage more likely. Co-sponsors included Sens. Neil Breslin, D-Albany, Daphne Jordan, R-Castleton-on-Hudson, Joe Griffo, R-Rome, Rachael May, D-Morrisville. They also thanked Senate Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, for his support as well as Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, Assembly Transportation Chairman Bill Magnarelli, D-Syracuse, and Assembly EnCon Chair Steven Englebright, D-Setauket.
Editor’s note: The Adirondack Explorer has this in-depth look at road salt’s impact on the Adirondack’s waters.
Photo courtesy of Phil Romans/Almanack archive
More coverage from the Adirondack Explorer: https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/state-poised-to-study-parks-salt-problems