Environmentalists raise concerns about salting roads during winter months

Joanna Gagis, Correspondent | February 1, 2019

New Jersey commuters won’t soon forget the snowstorm that stalled the northern part of the state on Nov. 15 last year. Just a few inches of snow brought traffic to a screeching halt because the roads weren’t salted. Since then, the Murphy administration has had the brine and salt trucks out at even the mention of snow. But some environmentalists say it’s not without risk.

“Salt has been named by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection as a pollutant. In the last 30 years in our state, we’ve seen a doubling in the salt in our waters,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Potosnak said that each winter an average of 140 pounds of salt per American enters our waterways. That’s equivalent to two large bags of salt from the store. Too much salt can be deadly for aquatic life and plants. It can be harmful to humans as well, says Rutgers professor Daniel Van Abs.

“Sodium is associated with hypertension. And so people who are on, or have hypertension, need to be worried about the amount of sodium in their diet. If they’re on low-salt diets, having salt in their drinking water is a problem for them,” said Van Abs, an associate professor of Practice for Water, Society and Environment for Rutgers University.

“The more salt that’s in our drinking supply from runoff from concrete and pavement. It causes our pipes to corrode as well and lead can enter into the drinking water and end up in our homes and in our families’ blood streams. It’s a very dangerous situation,” Potosnak said.

Both Potosnak and Van Abs were hesitant to be too critical of the officials who have to keep the roads safe.

“You have a public safety issue, which is the road safety issue. And then you have a public health and environmental health issue, and there’s no perfect answer to this. So the question is having the right people with the technical expertise making the decisions as to how much salt is needed for any particular storm,” said Van Abs.

In a statement, the Department of Transportation defended its commitment to the environment, saying, “NJDOT is a good steward of the environment. We don’t needlessly spread salt. Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to provide a safe traveling environment and the best way to do that is to use brine solution as a proactive measure to address winter weather. … If we don’t, lives are at stake.”

Brining is a solution, pun intended, that everyone seems to be able to get behind.

“So, brine is salt. It’s salt water, instead of rock salt. And what we found, in public works, officials, DOT, in the use of brine is that they can get the roads just as clear with 30 to 40 percent less salt than they had been using previously. In terms of environmental effects and public health effects, that’s good,” said Van Abs.

With two more months of winter left, there’s still lots of potential for snow, and with it more salt. It won’t be until the spring that we know what impact, if any, it’s all had on our environment and our population.