The problem with salt: Road salt contamination a plague across the state
By Marcus Wolf and Brian Molongoski, originally posted on August 7, 2016
In 1974, the National Wildlife Federation warned that rock salt used to melt snow on roads and highways damages the environment.
The federation outlined in a March edition of one of its publications that between 25 and 50 percent of the road salt runoff infiltrates soil and enters groundwater. Not only did the federation say the salt directly affects ecology, it contaminates human water supplies and can lead to health risks.
As an example, the federation reported that 60 communities outside Boston were placed on medical alert in the early 1970s because of road salt contamination.
On top of health impacts, the federation also noted the economic side effects of replacing damaged equipment, increased infrastructure maintenance and the costs towns must endure to find uncontaminated water.
The federation’s article, written more than 40 years ago, spelled out the road salt contamination phenomenon that is still widely seen to this day. Dozens of contamination cases have continued to pop up in the north country and beyond over the last few decades, leading to countless lawsuits and millions of dollars spent to fix each problem.
In New York state, the dangers of road salt contamination extend beyond the millions of tons of salt applied to roads each year. There is a long, sordid record of state and municipal salt piles leaching salt into the water table and contaminated wells for, in some cases, miles around.
Adirondack Council Director of Communications John F. Sheehan said that a great amount of environmental damage comes from salt-pile runoff, and towns, like the town of Dannemora, have been adversely affected by salt contamination from runoff.
“It kills me to see an uncovered salt pile anywhere,” he said.
the salted north country
Residents outside the village of Dannemora have for years dealt with water contamination from a nearby DOT salt pile. Like previous incidents, DOT specialists have repeatedly tested the water, but a solution has not materialized. The Plattsburgh Press-Republican last reported on the situation in 2013, in which residents said they had suffered a record cold winter without safe drinking water.
Dannemora resident Cheryle Saltmarsh, whose home is one of 18 households affected by the contamination, started an online petition calling on DOT to expedite construction of a new water line extended from Clinton Correctional Facility. The petition has 1,810 supporters so far.
Ms. Saltmarsh did not respond to requests for comment.
WPTZ reported that construction on the line was to take place in October of this year, but the project was delayed until late 2017 due to the prison break at Clinton Correctional that occurred last June. DOT spokeswoman Jennifer K. Post said the project’s plans should be finalized by this fall with construction slated to begin in the spring.
In Jefferson County, the town of Orleans has had one of the region’s most notorious salt contamination cases. While the Orleans situation is one of many in the region, residents there have been the most vocal. Since the 1980s, a DOT salt barn on Route 12 in Fishers Landing has caused widespread water contamination that has affected the private wells of around 50 residents.
Contamination has even driven business away from the town, where dilapidated gas stations and restaurants can be found along Route 12.
Residents have held a handful of protests in the last several months calling on the state to take responsibility for the crisis. State officials haven’t yet, but they did start providing bottled water to affected residents in April.
The town’s solution is to construct a new water line extending from the village of Alexandria Bay, but the project has a $13 million price tag. To make the project affordable for users, Orleans can only use $8.4 million of an available $11.4 million EFC loan. The town has lined up an additional $1.6 million in grants, but it has struggled to fill the remaining $3 million gap.
As the town waits for additional funding to fill the gap, the same Virginia Tech researchers who uncovered the extensive lead contamination in Flint, Mich., are testing the contaminated water for salt, lead and other contaminants. Preliminary results from first draw samples showed that nine homes exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead action level. According to the EPA, exceeding the lead action level means the system must take steps to control further corrosion and homeowners should be informed on how to protect their health.
Virginia Tech’s study is ongoing, however, and a report on the full study won’t be released until later this year.
A salt contamination issue in Alexandria Bay actually served as the precursor to the Orleans saga.
In 2002, a salt pile in the village Department of Public Works’ garage was blamed for tainting the wells of residents on Carnegie Bay Road. The salt was moved to the DOT storage facility on Route 12, which would later become ground zero for the contamination in Collins Landing and Fishers Landing.
The village constructed a municipal water line for the Carnegie Bay Road with a $137,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. Nearby residents attempted to sue the village before the line was constructed, but residents were actually blamed for the contamination in the end for not allowing a storage barn to be constructed in 1997, the Times reported.
Decades of problems
Years prior, a similar salt contamination saga occurred in the town of Pamelia during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Between Route 342 and Interstate 81 is a DOT salt storage barn, and a handful of residents live across the street. In 1988, residents on Lane Road and Wayside Drive complained that salt was contaminating their water, and they theorized that the problem stemmed from the then-uncovered salt pile.
DOT tested the water, but they never claimed responsibility. Several residents filed damage claims with the department, but its unknown if they were ever answered.
The Times reported in February 1989 that DOT would provide bottled drinking water to residents, but would not accept blame. A DOT official said the road salt could be “part” of the problem, but said it was likely “naturally occurring salt.” In late spring of the same year, DOT set out to build a storage barn to house the salt.
Years later, in early 2016, the Times spoke with residents who live on Route 342 across from the DOT facility. Two residents said they had experienced salt corrosion throughout their homes for over a decade, costing them thousands to replace plumbing and appliances.
State officials again tested the water but never accepted blame. The residents had their problem finally solved in 2013 when a municipal water line was extended to their homes from the other side of Interstate 81.
Each resident had to pay a $2,500 water district charge to cover capital costs. The state fronted most of the cost for the multi-million dollar extension.
In the town of Pitcairn along the Lewis County-St. Lawrence County border, runoff from DOT salt has contaminated the water supplies for a handful of residents.
Barbara J. Manchester, who lives close to the salt, has been dealing with the contamination since the early 2000’s. Her water is unsafe to drink, and she has spent thousands on replacing appliances over the years. The Times first reported Ms. Manchester’s story back in 2004.
The last time the Times spoke to Ms. Manchester in January of this year, her situation hadn’t changed other than the DOT providing her with bottled water every month. DOT still has not contacted her regarding the contamination, and the last correspondence she had received from officials was in 2004.
”Since then, whether there’s a difference in the contamination or not, I have no idea because I haven’t heard anything,” she told the Times.
Salt contamination has also affected downstate communities.
The Poughkeepsie Journal reported in 2014 that more than half of the private wells in the town of East Fishkill, Dutchess County, contained high concentrations of salt. The Cary Institute, an environmental research group based in Millbrook, tested several wells, some of which were near a former DOT salt storage site.
Ms. Post of the DOT said the department is working with owners of six afflicted East Fishkill properties to drill new wells.
While concentrated infiltration from salt piles has an immediate impact on certain residents near the salt plumes, the runoff from road salt is far more pervasive.
As road salt runs off into the ground and nearby bodies of water, it alters both soil and water chemistry, causing damage on a microscopic and macroscopic level.
Mr. Sheehan, the director of communications for the Adirondack Council, said that while deeper and richer soils are more resistant to increased salt levels, thinner soil cannot absorb as much salt without damaging the composition.
“The soil gets punished very quickly,” he said.
There are large portions of the Adirondack region with thin soils. And portions of Jefferson County are only inches of soil above bedrock.
As road salt enters the soil, it can also have an adverse impact on terrestrial plant life.
Daniel L. Kelting, executive director of the Paul Smith’s School of Natural Resource Management and Ecology, said that the sodium in road salt absorbs the moisture and displaces the calcium plants need for sustenance, similar to the effect of acid rain.
“(Plants) need the calcium,” he said.
Mr. Sheehan said that a patch of white birch trees between Upper and Lower Cascade lakes were killed due to road salt contamination.
“Every one of those trees are dead now,” he said.
Mr. Kelting said that salt levels in lakes located near roadways are 30 times higher than average. The salt levels in streams near roadways are 100 times higher than average.
“High salinity levels and a buildup of sediment in a stream can cause a decrease in the ecological health of the stream, decrease in terrestrial biodiversity and sediment deposits can alter the flow of water and reduce the water’s depths,” said Reanne Dulanski, the district manager for the St. Lawrence Soil and Water Conservation District.
Chases Lake in Lewis County contains an unnaturally high level in salt, said Nichelle C. Billhardt, the district manager for the Lewis County Soil and Water Conservation District, although it is not located near any major highways.
“It’s kind of unusual,” she said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
While aquatic plant life can be more resilient, fish, insects and microorganisms are not as tolerant of the adverse effects of salt runoff.
Small insects and microorganisms, such as zooplankton, are more sensitive to increased salt levels, Mr. Kelting said. Zooplankton help regulate algae populations and are food for larger organisms, meaning that zooplankton population loss due to road salt contamination could deplete a food source for these larger organisms and allow an overgrowth in algae.
“(They) would be indirectly impacted,” he said.
Reptiles and amphibians such as toads and salamanders that inhabit the pools near roadways are also sensitive to high levels of salt. Mr. Kelting said salt is lethal to salamander eggs.
“Salt concentration in those pools can get very high,” he said.
LOOKING FOR ALTERNATIVES
Many agencies, such as ADKAction and the Adirondack Watershed Institute, and numerous municipalities throughout Northern New York are exploring alternatives to road salt.
“(The damage) doesn’t have to be permanent,” Mr. Sheehan said.
Mr. Sheehan said that some towns, such as the Erie County town of Elma, are exploring alternative options.
The use of sand as an alternative has been one of the more thoroughly investigated options.
Mr. Sheehan said one of the benefits of using sand is that it allows cars to grip the roads better than salt does. The concern for using sand, however, is that it could cover and harm fish populations.
“Most of our rural townships spread mostly sand,” Mrs. Billhardt said.
Agency and municipality representatives are also exploring organic alternatives to road salt.
Mr. Kelting said a few alternate chemical compounds include calcium, potassium and magnesium acetates, all of which are free of chloride. Beet juice is another common alternative used in Pennsylvania and many Midwestern states.
“If (the Midwest) can do alternatives, we should be able to as well,” he said.
CALLING FOR REFORM
Using new substances to keep roads clear are not the only changes agency and municipality representatives are considering. Some have considered how salt is manipulated and distributed.
Mr. Kelting said that highway departments could replace pure rock salt with salt brines, or salt mixed with water, to receive the benefits of road salt and reduce the amount of chloride seeping into the roads. Maryland highway departments have already replaced road salt with salt brines.
“It is much more effective,” he said. “You use a lot less product.”
Both Mr. Sheehan and Mr. Kelting said that the spreaders on salt trucks could be adjusted to prevent them from dumping salt while they are not in motion. Warren County officials are working on adjusting the spreaders on their trucks.
“You use the minimum amount,” said Mr. Kelting, “so that salt is not pouring out at the intersection.”
Back to the salt piles
To address the issue of salt running off from uncovered piles, the St. Lawrence County Highway Department, Planning Department and the Soil and Water Conservation District are seeking funds to build a covered storage unit.
“The cooperative effort has continued for a covered salt storage facility, knowing while there currently isn’t a chloride issue with water quality, the Highway Department, Planning Department, and the Soil and Water Conservation District all have mutual interest in protecting and improving water quality,” Mrs. Dulanski said.
Many environmental organization representatives are calling for policy changes to decrease salt distribution, salt levels in water and road salt damages.
Both Mr. Sheehan and Mr. Kelting said that lowering the speed limit on certain roads in the Adirondacks would allow highway departments to use less road salt. Mr. Sheehan said that installing improved weather stations that more accurately predict snow and hail storms would also reduce the amount of road salt needed on roadways. Mr. Kelting also suggested creating salt-free zones for areas that do not need it.
“It’s an environmental threat that won’t go away without significant action,” Mr. Sheehan said.
Road salt is corrosive, and Mr. Sheehan said that runoff can damage roads, bridges, guardrails, street lights, fire plugs and guardrails, as well as poisoning the environment.