Thursday, December 10, 2020

Passing the salt

After a $3 billion state bond to fund climate change projects fell apart because of the pandemic economy, a lot of environmental policy attention up here turned to a bill that would study the damage caused in the Adirondacks by road salt.

We’ve reported this year on that damage. Salt threatens human health and property values.

The road salt bill was introduced last winter in Saranac Lake.

Its Senate sponsor, Sen. Betty Little, a North Country Republican, made sure it moved by working with Sen. Tim Kennedy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee.  He put his name atop the bill in Little’s place and gave the bill a better chance of passing. It cleared the Senate and state Assembly this summer.

Then, crickets.


Adirondack environmental groups got anxious and tried to apply pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign it.

Last week, he did.

As we reported:

The law creates a 14-member group to hold public hearings, investigate the damage already done by road salt and come up with new guidelines for highway departments, including the state Department of Transportation. The bill expects the task force to spend three years on the job, wrapping up its work by the end of 2024.

It also directs state highway officials to vary how much salt they apply and how often, and then environmental regulators to monitor nearby waters.

My colleague Mike Lynch, who has been covering salt longer than most people have known it’s a problem, captured the relief of local lawmakers and environmental activists during a celebration of the new law in Saranac Lake (outside, of course).

Since the governor signed the law, I’ve seen some concern that this would reduce road safety because the state road crews will be changing how they clear roads in the winter, in at least a few parts of the Adirondack Park.

One thing I’ve learned in recent years is to never make predictions. But … I suspect we’ll see techniques that look to keep roadways as clear as they are now while using less salt.

One of the people I’ve stayed in touch with this year is a guy named Phill Sexton, who will be featured in an upcoming magazine story. He’s helped local highway departments around Lake George reduce salt use to save money and the environment while protecting public safety.

One way to do this is by becoming smarter about when salt is applied. No need to apply salt before the rain comes in a rain-snow mix, for instance, or if the snow isn’t going to stick. Or we might see highway trucks apply brine instead of rock salt. Brine is salty water that gives road crews more bang for their buck in certain conditions.

In other words, if you’re worried your trip to the grocery store is about to take a lot longer or become more dangerous, I don’t think you have much to worry about.

A state highway truck dumps road salt in Tupper Lake. Photo by Mike Lynch

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Ry’s weekly “Water Line” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Ry is a reporter who covered water-quality issues for the Explorer.


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3 Responses

  1. Dean Bianco says:

    It is beyond high time for us to be finally reducing salt use. All neighboring states have done this YEARS ago. Brine has been used for YEARS in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine. I won’t get into the YEARS of the NYS DOT testing certain dedicated sections of state highways for “reduced salt” effects. YEARS ago, they experimented with salt alternatives in the Cascade Lakes section of Route 73 near Lake Placid. So, why does the NYS DOT need another THREE YEARS to get their act together? I do not ask rhetorically. I wish somebody would give me an answer to that question. Another THREE years of our environment, our drinking water, and our vehicles sustaining the ravages of the salt assault is ridiculous, in my opinion.

  2. Joan Grabe says:

    Dean, you are absolutely right ! But we take our successes where and when we can and this has been a regional project peopled and advocated by many wonderful people and organizations ( my personal favorite, AdkAction ). Agile and rapid are not descriptive of the pace of state action. They are always dragging their heels and they need to be prodded into action. We will be watching their efforts.

    • Dean Bianco says:

      Thanks, Joan for your reply. I suppose patience is required on my part. In the mean time, I can take comfort knowing several worthy agencies including ADK Action will be holding NYS DOT officials accountable for implementing the new salt reduction mandate.

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