LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC) — Between fiscal year 2009 and FY 2012, the Maryland State Highway Administration used 1.06 million tons of salt on roads during winter weather events, at an average of 211,043.8 tons per winter.
This winter, SHA battled the elements with a whopping 480,000 tons of salt.
Environmentalists from the Anacostia Rivershed Society say that presents a problem for local waterways.
Research has shown that salt runoff in streams and rivers affects aquatic creatures, according to ARS natural resources specialist Jorge Montero.
He says salt can also be detrimental for plants and birds who ingest the crystals thinking they are seeds, but the biggest tolls are on macroinvertebrates, fish, and amphibians. Salty water studies have even shown local extinctions of certain breeds.
A Maryland Department of Natural Resources study published in April says road salt is contributing to long-term salinization of streams in Maryland, and it appears to be altering the ecological condition of freshwater stream ecosystems.
Unfortunately, Montero says, “there’s no silver bullet in terms of an alternative product.”
Organic solutions, like beet juice, can cause their own problems by sucking up oxygen from the water while decomposing.
And, according to State Highway spokesman Charlie Gischlar, “SHA has tried other alternative combinations or stand-alone products — beet juice or beet molasses — which really have not shown much if any difference during a storm, not to mention the increased cost.”
But until a “silver bullet” product is found, “sustainable de-icing practices should be a key issue in any environmental or public planning agenda especially under our current scenario of climate change” Montero wrote in a recent post on AnacostiaWS.org.
Maryland lawmakers did pass two bills in 2010 that required the establishment of a Statewide Salt Management Plan. They tasked SHA and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) with developing “road salt management best practices” to minimize environmental impacts of road salt runoff.
“Every SHA maintenance employee and winter ops contractor goes through intensive training each summer in SHA’s snow college,” Gischlar says. “One of the primary functions of the snow college is to reiterate our salt management plan.”
But there has to be a balance, he added, between making roads safe and minimizing salt distribution.
“Every year we have a harsh winter and certain groups hear the amount of salt used, we receive inquiries about the effect,” he says. “And during every one of these events, we also hear from our residents and motorists that want to know how their SHA road can be cleared more quickly… The goal is to maximize the safety by opening roads and quickly as possible, while keeping in mind our salt management strategies.”
But Montero says he still sees “a lot of bad practices” when it comes to salt distribution on roads.
“If people like, you know, biodiversity, if people like animals, if people like plants, then they should really be concerned.”
The DNR study concluded that “if road salt continues to be applied to Maryland roadways at its current rate, salt concentrations in freshwater streams and drinking water reservoirs will continue to increase.”
It suggested “aggressively managing and in some cases limiting, road salt use” to slow that increase.