ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Since 2020, New York State has been interested in salt. This month, a final report was released by the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force, a group convened to study whether the use of road salt in the winter is safe for the Adirondacks.

The task force’s work has culminated in a 27-page report, released last week by the New York State Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Conservation. The report looks at what the introduction of salt onto roadways does to rivers, streams, and wildlife around the Adirondacks. The core messaging: Use less.

“I thank the Adirondack Road Salt Reduction Task Force and our agency partners for their hard work on completing this report prior to this year’s snow and ice season,” said State Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez. “The State Department of Transportation takes its role in balancing public safety with environmental stewardship very seriously and we are currently evaluating new areas within the Adirondack Park to conduct salt reduction pilot programs this coming winter.”

The report breaks down the issues with using road salt, just as salt breaks down ice when used on roads. When it does so, it dissolves into snow melt and groundwater, which the report finds leads to accumulations of higher amounts of chloride in drinking water.

It’s not a matter of high alert everywhere. The report states that many of the Adirondack Park’s 11,000+ lakes and ponds are within safe contamination guidelines. While that’s a comfort, there are exceptions – water bodies that show evidence that the use of road salt on nearby roadways may be higher than is deemed safe. Even in the places deemed within regulation, the task force advises a fresh look at whether those regulations are enough.

“Task Force members with subject matter expertise also found that more recent scientific literature may indicate existing water quality standards are not protective enough to prevent impacts to the Adirondack Park’s sensitive natural resources and ecosystem,” the report states in its “Solutions and Findings” section. “Therefore, more protective limitations specific to the Adirondack Park may be required to prevent further deterioration to the region’s water quality, wildlife, and the environment.”

Seven core recommendations are made in the report, including:

  • Setting new and improved water quality standards that better protect the health of those drinking from or otherwise interacting with those water sources
  • Expanding on snow and ice removal methods and policies in ways that reduce the amount of salt used in a season
  • Providing snow and ice removal training to individuals, as well as public employees, who are part of the annual de-icing of local roads and highways
  • Maintaining and expanding funding for road salt reduction efforts, management practices, public outreach, and contamination response
  • Making salt usage data widely available to the general public
  • Pushing public outreach forward to better educate communities about ways to reduce the use of road salt, and why reduction matters
  • Quick response to water contamination

The task force breaks down exactly what more salt in the water means for environmental and human health. Road salt can cause aquatic ecosystems to change, threatening any and all lifeforms that can’t tolerate the uptick. Freshwater species become less abundant, and the impact is suggested to extend to trace amounts of metals like iron, lead and copper that can be found in fish. For humans, chloride levels are lower in the Adirondacks than in most of New York, but still not where they could be.

The New York Department of Transportation has used more than six million tons of road salt on Adirondack Park roads and highways since 1980. While the effects on ecosystems can be studied and monitored over years, others may be harder to detect over time – like plumbing. Chloride is corrosive, meaning that the more of it in water, the higher the risk of corrosion in pipes. Corrosion can lead to other chemicals and harmful substances becoming dislodged from piping, and ending up in drinking water. 73% of the Adirondack Park’s homes were built before the 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act, which prohibited the use of lead pipes – meaning threats to health that may have laid dormant for decades.

“We know (members of the task force) have a responsibility to keep the roads safe for travel,” said Kevin Chlad, Government Relations Director for preservation organization The Adirondack Council.  “We also know there is a limit to the amount of salt you can dump into a watershed before damage occurs. We didn’t know what that limit was when New York started using road salt here. Thanks to the task force, we know a lot more now. It’s time to act on that knowledge and save what has not yet been lost.” 

The fight to reduce the use of road salt has resulted in some solutions being implemented already across parts of the Adirondacks. Over the last several winters, Warren County has used brine, a salt-water mixture that gets applied to roadways prior to a deep freeze or period of heavy snowfall.