Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Regulating road salt like acid rain

Several decades ago, acid rain in the Adirondacks helped direct the nation’s attention to new kinds of air pollution.

Despite the local environmental protections here, acids were being carried from coal-fired power plants elsewhere in the country by the atmosphere and falling into Adirondack lakes and streams, killing off fish. The regulatory boundary protecting the park’s forests and wetlands from development and logging weren’t going to stop that.

A national problem needed a national solution. So, in 1990, Congress updated the Clean Air Act to crack down on polluters.

A recent paper, authored by researchers at the University of Maryland, argues that salt pollution, including pollution from road salt, may be so ubiquitous that it now needs such a national solution. “Ultimately,” the paper says, “there may be a need for regulations similar to the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which were enacted to address pollution from acid rain.”

Right now, the two leading federal regulations that are supposed to ensure the nation’s waters are safe and fishable — the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act — largely ignore the dangers of road salt in particular. A recent New York attempt to tackle the problem has already been scaled back.

For a long time, even though the dangers of salt are known by regulators, the broader public’s assumption was that road salt was innocuous and got washed away. Our reporting here at the Explorer has shown how wrong that is.

The new paper, which appears in the journal Biogeochemistry, argues it might be time for national regulations, since the problem of “freshwater salinization” is striking across the United States, caused by road salt but also other human-made chemicals that fill the ground and water with salts.

“Now we’re looking into both the acute exposure risks and the long-term health, environmental, and infrastructure risks of all these chemical cocktails that result from adding salts to the environment,” one of the searchers, Sujay Kaushal, said in a press release. “And we’re saying, ‘This is becoming one of the most serious threats to our freshwater supply.’ And it’s happening in many places we look in the United States and around the world.”

Research in the Adirondacks helped update the Clean Air Act. Perhaps the problems here can also start new thinking about the Clean Water Act.

A state highway truck dumps road salt in Tupper Lake. Photo by Mike Lynch/Almanack file photo

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.

11 Responses

  1. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Ry, maybe you can help us consider solutions. The comparison to acid rain breaks down when you note that we still got the rain without acid. How can we keep drivers on the winter roads without using salt ? What are the pros and cons for alternatives ? Should the state mandate reduced speed limits when snow is in the road ? Should travel be restricted ? Ice is more dangerous than snow. How. Can we deal with ice without using salt ?
    Doubtless, there are more questions along these lines.

    Thank you for your reporting.

  2. Smitty says:

    Too much road salt can be a bad thing but the oft repeated comparison to acid rain is hyperbole. Acid rain sterilized something like 1/3 of the Adirondack’s lakes. Road salt doesnt even come close. No doubt there are subtle impacts at levels far lower than the EPA chloride standard of 250 mg/l, such as preventing spring turnover at Mirror Lake, but I suspect localized impacts to roadside water supplies are most common.

  3. Zephyr says:

    There are alternatives to road salt, but it doesn’t seem like there is a silver bullet solution unless you leave the roads covered with ice. Here’s one article on the subject: Maybe climate change will take care of the problem!

  4. Arthur F Dodson says:

    Maybe we should look back before 1980. Having been a plow truck operator for years I’ve been questioned, yelled at and worse when the roads had less than a inch of snow left in them. I believe public information is key as – snow tires better yet studded snows, slow down and I’d say sandbags for added weight. Last but not least the best winter tool available COMMON SENSE!

    • Bill Ott says:

      Sandbags are the greatest! Not only do they give remarkable traction to a van, pickup, or other rear wheel drive vehicle, they are handy for pouring sand under the tires in case you do get stuck, and they do not pollute.

    • Zephyr says:

      Solutions that require people to change their behavior or use common sense are doomed to failure. In any case, I doubt citizens would put up with slicker roads. The biggest problem I see in upstate New York is freezing rain and thaw and freeze cycles. Any snow left on roadways quickly turns to ice if not treated with salt. Sand works to a certain extent, but it too has its environmental costs. I live on a hill in a city and several times a winter we end up with an ice chute down the hill until the salt trucks come by. Get a little water running over the ice and it is quite a thrill ride. Without salt the sidewalks on our hill become impassable. There are many hills like that all over the Adirondacks. I suppose we could require studded tires or chains, but they cause huge wear and tear on the roads. Lots of issues with reducing salt.

  5. Boreas says:

    Much can be accomplished by using salt intelligently and judiciously. We are far from that. Much vehicular risk can be reduced by making smart choices to stay home whenever possible if our vehicles are not properly set up to deal with ice.

    How many accidents are caused by rain and hydroplaning – people driving too fast for conditions with inadequate tires? The problem isn’t ice – the problem is the public’s insistence on taking common sense and caution out of our lives.

  6. mrdale14424 says:

    Society’s “I’m more important than everyone else” has led to the insistence of being able to drive in all weather conditions without any vehicle preparation or individual concern about road conditions. Drivers insist on driving the same speeds as would be prudent on clear roads.
    I grew up in rural Rensselaer County when NYS Route 2 would routinely have snow on it until traffic wore it down to the two tire paths in each lane, the Brittonkill Central school busses would “chain-up” for the snowy roads. We all got to where we needed to be with a lot less road salt. Cars and trucks all used snow tires in the winter.
    It’s too much responsibility for today’s drivers who feel that “driving is a right, not a privilege”. Where I now live in the Finger Lakes, our roads are “snow-white” with salt for much of the winter and long after a storm; most of it put down by the state.
    Right next to the lake; no reduction until it all washes by rain or air-borne dust into the lake. And this is our drinking water that we are fouling!

  7. geogymn says:

    Is it cost prohibitive to mix in Lime with the salt/ sand to help neutralize the acid rain or is that asking for trouble?

  8. Todd Eastman says:

    Those are big-fat-contracts the state and municipalities across the Northeast hand out to the salt firms…

    … wonder why so much salt is poured on the roads? ?

    • Zephyr says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if money has something to do with it–it always does. But, on the other hand, I have always done a lot of driving in all seasons and all over the place, including the Northeast. Many, many times I have been driving in some terrible winter conditions that suddenly improve once crossing the border back into New York. More than once I can recall my wife and I laughing about it when there was literally a line on the road where the conditions improved. Personally, I am all for vastly reducing the amount of salt used or finding a substitute even if it is more expensive, but I think it will be very hard to convince the public if the roads are slicker. More than one politician has been chased from office due to winter road problems.

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