Sunday, January 09, 2005

[PlanPutnam] : Salt goes off road and into water

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Saturday, January 8, 2005

Salt goes off road and into water
Chemical a big cause of pollution

By Dan Shapley
Poughkeepsie Journal

When a plow passes, spreading salt and sand in its wake, most are relieved
to know the road behind it is left safer. As an avid fly fisherman, Bob
Meyen is more aware than most about the problem posed by salt in streams,
where high concentrations can be toxic to fish, or the critters fish eat.

''I used to work in Canada quite a bit and they don't salt the roads there.
They plow them and you learn to run on packed snow. You learn to slow down.
That's something that doesn't happen around here,'' the Salt Point resident
said. ''It's difficult to control the environment and to live the lifestyle
that we're used to.''

Scientists are beginning to grapple with the unintended consequences of
safe winter travel.

Salt has been steadily increasing in streams throughout the Northeast,
including those in the Hudson Valley. The Hudson River Environmental
Society hosted a gathering of scientists in Kingston last month to share
research and discuss how the salt is affecting stream life.

Salt is representative of the type of pollution harming Hudson Valley
streams. A generation after the Clean Water Act outlawed dumping of
chemicals and sewage, the main sources of pollution now are diffuse and
difficult to control.

Like gasoline, oil and other automotive chemicals, it runs off roads and
parking lots into storm drains and eventually streams. Like bacteria,
viruses and a host of personal care products and pharmaceuticals, it also
reaches streams through septic and sewer systems.

Changes needed

The Clean Water Act was successful because it targeted large single
pollution sources -- industrial and sewage outfalls. Curbing salt
pollution, like other forms of so-called ''non-point'' pollution, would
require broader changes to everyday activities -- finding alternatives,
establishing best-management practices and controlling roadside runoff, for

''It is a problem, but it's also a solution, too, to significant issues we
have in terms of road safety,'' said William Dey, president of the Hudson
River Environmental Society.

An icy and snowy day like Thursday is a reminder how important salt is for
keeping roads safe and the economy running.

The state Department of Transportation spends $96.7 million keeping roads
clear each year, about a quarter of which is spent on road salt. County and
municipal highway crews are responsible for local roads.

The DOT estimates every dollar spent clearing roads saves $6.50 for the
economy, which would otherwise suffer from travel and shipment delays, lost
wages and damaged property. Accidents that cause injury are eight to nine
times higher on roads that have not been treated.

Beyond that, after a couple generations of aggressive road clearing, people
often expect to be able to reach work, or the supermarket, no matter what
the weather.

''Once upon a time when it snowed heavily, people just stayed home,'' said
Jeanne Hewitt, head of the DOT's Environmental Analysis Bureau.

No more. With increased demand for clear roads, and more roads to support a
burgeoning population, residual salt levels are on the rise.

The concentration of chloride, a component of salt, detected in the Hudson
River at Troy is seven times greater than it was at the start of the 20th
century, according to Leo Hetling, a former Department of Health scientist.
Road salt was first used in the 1940s and accounts for an estimated 68
percent of the salt in the upper Hudson Watershed north of Troy, he said.

In Dutchess County, the East Branch of the Wappinger Creek, as well as
Stony Creek and Saw Kill in Red Hook, have been studied, and also show
evidence of increasing chloride concentrations -- though road salt may not
be the primary reason for those increases, scientists said.

Pollution sources

Other contributors include water softeners and discharges through septic
and sewage systems, said Serena Cirparis, a research associate for the
Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve.

''Sources other than road salt may be important, especially in
less-developed areas,'' Cirparis said.

The concentration of chlorides in the Saw Kill has doubled since 1991. The
source appears to be the residential community, not salt from roads in
winter. The rising concentrations in the Stony Creek were linked to sewage
treatment plant discharges.

The concentrations measured in Hudson Valley streams is still far below the
concentration the Environmental Protection Agency has set as a concern for
drinking water.

''We're well below any water supply or ecological considerations,'' Hetling
said. ''But any time things begin to rise, you worry.''

Humans are not the only source of chlorides in the environment. Rainwater
picks up chloride from the oceans, as well as from coal-fired power plants
and factories. Bedrock has chloride, and volcanoes can release it.

Construction of new roads and homes in previously undeveloped areas appears
to be the root of the rising concentrations of chlorides in streams,
scientists agreed.

Based on new housing construction, the U.S. Census estimated the population
of Dutchess and Ulster increased by 14,000 from 2000 to 2003, a jump of 3
percent, following a decade of 8 percent growth in the 1990s.

New homes often mean new roads. Both cover the landscape with impervious
surfaces that prevent rain from naturally percolating into the ground, and
increase the sources of salt and petroleum in runoff.

River's health is key

The streams that feed the Hudson River snake over 13,500 square miles, a
vast area that includes the Mohawk River in central New York and the
southern portion of the Adirondack Mountains. Protecting the Hudson's
tributaries is important for protecting the health of the river itself,
which is an estuary that mixes with seawater south of Troy.

''Healthy streams are critical to the estuary ecosystem,'' said Scott
Cuppett, Hudson River watershed coordinator for the Department of
Environmental Conservation's Hudson River Estuary Program.

Fish use tributaries to spawn, forage or take shelter, he said. The
dynamics of freshwater entering the river from tributaries and salt water
entering from the Atlantic Ocean creates the estuarine environment that is
particularly fruitful for life.

''Suburban runoff is currently the No. 1 source of pollution,'' Cuppett
said. ''Chlorides and road salt are definitely part of that source of

A DEC study of water quality has showed that the state's streams are slowly
becoming degraded, said Margaret Novak, chief of the statewide waters
monitoring for the DEC.

Between 1972, when the Clean Water Act was passed, and 1992, the water
quality in 39 percent of streams improved, with all others staying the
same. In the 10 years that followed, 16 percent improved -- but 18 percent

Effect of development

The streams that showed a decline in water quality were those that had
previously been pristine. Development in previously open land and forest is
likely a culprit, she said.

Aside from glaring examples -- such as when a salt pile at Woodbury Commons
in Orange County leaked into a nearby pond at the head of the Woodbury
Creek -- salt has not directly killed the water bugs and worms that DEC
used to assess stream quality, Novak said. The DEC identified the problem
at Woodbury Commons during its stream assessments in 2003 and the parking
lot operator covered the salt pile.

Identifying and covering salt piles to prevent them dissolving into streams
is the easy part of the solution, Novak said.

''The larger issue is these changes in land use, the increase in impervious
surfaces and the runoff,'' Novak said. ''That's going to be the next set of
issues,'' she added, ''the next battlefront for us to remedy.''

A Geological Survey study of the Croton Watershed, which includes part of
Southern Dutchess County and supplies New York City and Westchester County
with drinking water, found salt used on roads is held in roadside soil,
providing a year-round source to the groundwater.

In some cases, nearby homes with wells can have elevated salt in their
drinking water, and some nearby streams had chloride at levels that were
toxic to fish.

''Right now,'' said Paul Hesig, a hydrologist for the Geological Survey,
''there's far too much salt being applied to the watershed.''

Dan Shapley can be reached at

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