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.