August 3, 2008

State Urges Towns to Cut Back on Road Salt Use

By Terry Date, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

Aug. 3--State transportation and environmental officials are asking five Southern New Hampshire towns to cut their road salt use by a quarter or more by 2015.

Over the years, road salt deposited on roads in Salem, Windham, Derry, Londonderry and Chester has raised chloride levels in four local streams, making them unhealthy for fish, frogs, insect larvae and other aquatic creatures. High chloride is not considered unhealthy for humans, though excessive levels do affect the taste of drinking water.

Representatives of the state Department of Environmental Services and the Department of Transportation pitched their salt reduction program to selectmen in Salem and Windham last week, and will go before town councilors in Londonderry and Derry later this month. Their goal is to get a commitment from those towns going into next year.

Participation in the program is optional. Compliance, however, is not. The standards will ultimately have to be met, as required under the federal Clean Water Act, said Mark Hemmerlein of the state Department of Transportation. But the state has yet to announce a deadline for compliance or a penalty for failing to meet the standard.

For now, state officials are seeking cooperation. After all, they said, regulating behavior can get expensive. And New Hampshire towns have an independent streak.

"We don't want to get to the 'You shall' stage," said Eric Williams of the state Department of Environmental Services.

So far, local towns seem receptive to cutting back on road salt. But there are some who worry that if their trucks spread less salt, it will sacrifice safety.

It helps that the state is extending a carrot to entice towns to participate in the salt reduction program -- $2.5 million, available on a matching basis, with 80 percent of the funding provided by the federal government and 20 percent by the towns. Most of the money is available for implementing the plan, such as buying more efficient salt spreaders, but money is also there for planning, Hemmerlein said.

Beth Roth, chairman of Salem's Board of Selectmen, said the town has been working with the state ever since testing in local waters revealed high chloride levels in Policy Brook two years ago. Last winter, she said, the town used magic salt, an alternative ice melter, and it worked well.

"We will continue to use more alternatives to salt, for two reasons -- economics and the environment," she said.

Selectman Everett McBride said the town has also bought more efficient salt spreaders and is hiring a consultant to design a truck washing machine at the Public Works Department. The truck washer's drain system will collect the salt, preventing it from running off into the ground and streams.

McBride and Roth said the town will put together a plan of action to reduce salt use and to qualify for state aid to help pay for more efficient equipment and other salt-reducing measures.

But in neighboring Windham, Selectman Roger Hohenberger told representatives from the state's transportation and environmental departments he would be opposed to reducing salt, except around sensitive brook areas. This is because of the complaints he hears from residents during the winter.

They say that "Windham roads aren't clean enough because we don't use enough salt," he said.

Hemmerlein said there might be more efficient ways to use salt without sacrificing safety. One approach would be to keep more of it on the road, and less on the roadside, which can be accomplished using newer, more efficient salt-spreading equipment.

Newer salt spreaders are tied to the speed of a truck. When the vehicle stops in traffic, so does the salt flow, instead of continuing to pour out as most existing spreaders do. Another approach is pre-wetting the salt. This makes it stickier, keeping it on the pavement where it can melt snow and ice.

Williams said he hopes the state can measure a noticeable chloride reduction in the streams by 2015, the end of the period that the federal funding is available. The chloride reduction strategy calls for using an amount of salt that will.keep the level under the chloride standard.

This comes out to about a 24 percent reduction for towns in the Policy Brook watershed, a 37 percent reduction in the Beaver Brook watershed, a 41 percent reduction in the tiny northern tributary to Canobie Lake, and a 25 percent reduction in the Dinsmore Brook watershed.

The reduction program also calls for the state to cut its salt applications by levels similar to those the towns are being asked to cut.

Salt spread on town and state roads contributes less to chloride levels than the salt spread on privately owned parking lots, in some instances. But regulating the many privately owned parking lots is a trickier task than seeking cooperation from municipal and state operations.

The state of Minnesota has a promising state/private program in place, Williams said. It includes training for salt operators. Estimates are that it could reduce salt use by 70 percent, he said. New Hampshire officials have yet to decide whether to follow suit or try another initiative.

One approach that might work in New Hampshire is a certification program for those who apply salt to roads and parking lots, he said.

The state's salt reduction program came about as a result of water testing that started in July 2006 in advance of the widening of Interstate 93. Those test results showed chloride levels spiked as high as 600 milligrams per liter, more than double the acceptable chloride standard of 230 milligrams per liter.

Officials knew the chloride levels would only increase when the highway was widened from two to four lanes between Salem and Manchester. So they wanted to get a jump on the problem before the widening is finished. The $780 million project is slated for completion in 2017.


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