SCHROON LAKE - Road salt, according to a recent study, is not only deteriorating bridges and pavement and corroding vehicles, but it's killing trees, threatening water supplies and degrading the environment over the long term.
The study was conducted by the Adirondack Watershed Institute and funded by ADK Action. It's the third such report released in the last year that calls for changes in the way ice and snow is managed along highways.
Daniel Kelting of the Watershed Institute said that excessive salt use results in significant damage to both natural and man-made environments.
"We think the water, plants and wildlife of the Adirondack Park deserve special treatment from roads crews to protect them from harm," Kelting said, noting that salt also damages roads, bridges, vehicles and buildings - and is contaminating wells that provide drinking water.
The study indicates that salt levels in some Adirondack lakes - particularly those near roadways - contain up to 50 times or more the chloride than they should naturally.
Sodium Chloride in Schroon Lake is about 11 times it's desirable level, according to the report.
One of the study's recommendations is the creation of a "salt sensitivity map." The map would visualize specific areas where drinking water, plant-life and animal habitats are at particular risk.
"Creating an official salt-sensitivity map is the logical first step toward better protections," Kelting said.
Two previous studies were commissioned by the Adirondack Council and the University of Maine.
The studies indicate that roadside trees are dying in ever-greater numbers due to road salt, and that salt runoff into waterways may be encouraging chloride-resistant invasive species - such as milfoil and zebra mussels - to spread and choke out more sensitive native plants. Also, high chloride levels have been shown to damage lake ecosystems, contributing to algal blooms, eutrophication, and damage to fish and native aquatic plants.
The salt study revealed that the state DOT currently applies more road salt than any other state, about 950,000 tons of road salt annually, or an average of about 22 tons per lane- mile.
Lee Keet, chair of the water quality committee for ADK Action, said his group will be lobbying to reduce salt use.
"We are paying an immeasurable cost in reduced property values and tourism," he said. "We cannot continue to ignore the deleterious effects road salt has on human and animal health."
The watershed institute report contains research showing the negative effects that chlorine and sodium contamination have on water quality. The report details some of the alternatives to road salt that are being employed in other states.
The study recommends substituting Magnesium Chloride, noting that it is not only more effective than road salt at lower temperatures, but it also has beneficial effects on forests and soils - but, it is considerably more expensive.
Brian Houseal, executive director of the Adirondack Council, said it is important to be realistic about road salt.
"We cannot just stop using road salt tomorrow," he said. "But we need to start protecting our most sensitive places now."
The state Department of Transportation is already proposing to reduce its salt usage as a means to save costs. Part of the DOT's 2010-11 budget calls for careful monitoring of the quantity of salt used by snow plow drivers. It's estimated that a significant reduction in salt usage could save the state millions of dollars per year.
"While many of these alternatives may cost more up-front, they can mitigate many of the long-term environmental and infrastructure costs that we face with continued overuse of salt," Houseal said.
The University of Maine study recommends investing in porous asphalt that allows de-icing chemicals to soak through to collection pools underneath road surfaces to prevent runoff.
In addition to the environmental impact of road salt, the material also causes significant harm to motor vehicles.
Annual nationwide damage by road salt is estimated to be $11.7 billion to private vehicles and $26 billion total when including damage to roadways and other infrastructure.
Some of the major findings in the study include that most state highway officials don't recommend the use of road salt at temperatures under 15 degrees; preventive anti-icing measures can reduce costs by more than 50 percent over after-the-fact salt spreading; and half of vehicle corrosion can be attributed to the regular use of road de-icing salts.
The full study can be viewed at adk-action.org.