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Governor fills road salt task force seats

Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed members to the Adirondack Road Salt Task Force on Thursday, Dec. 16, more than two weeks after the committee’s deadline to present its recommendations for salt-spreading alternatives during winter months.

The 14-member task force was created under the Randy Preston Road Salt Reduction Act which former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law last December, but the task force did not have any members appointed to it until last week.

Now that the task force is staffed, it will review the causes and potential solutions to reducing and mitigating the harm of road salt currently corrupting wells and natural waters around the Adirondacks.

“It’s definitely better late than never,” said Dan Kelting, executive director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College. He was one of Hochul’s appointments to the task force.

But he said the delay means another year of opportunity to work on the issue has been lost.

The task force will need a new deadline for its report, he said. With the amount of work ahead of them, he estimates it will be several months before that report is finished.

Kelting said he was “excited and honored” to be appointed to the task force and said it feels good to see the science he and his colleagues have been working on make an impact on state practices.

There is no one solution, Kelting said, but, “we’ve got to do something different.”

The Adirondacks need safe roads, he said, but it also needs safe drinking water and clean natural waters.

Road salt is a seasonal pollutant. It’s used to make roads safe in the winter, creating friction on the icy paths. But it doesn’t stay on the roads. It runs off into waterways and wells, where its sodium content can have corrupting effects — altering aquatic life, making well water undrinkable, rusting out houses’ plumbing and appliances and rusting vehicles.

High-sodium water is also a hazard for people with high blood pressure.

It is costly for people with contaminated wells to buy bottled water or drill a new well.

Kelting estimates that since the state started salting roads in 1980, over 7 million tons of salt has been spread on Adirondack roadways. That’s enough to fill train cars stretching from where he went to graduate school in Blacksburg, Virginia to Paul Smith’s College — over 750 miles.

A 2019 study by the Adirondack Watershed Institute found that of 500 Adirondacks wells tested, 64% of those downhill from state roads were found to have sodium levels exceeding the federally recommended health limit.

Wells near local government roads, where less salt is used, showed less contamination, and wells far away from salted roads showed none.

“Road salt has caused irrevocable damage to our environment and waterways, contaminating drinking water supply for homeowners for far too long,” Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said in a statement.

The bill was named after the late Wilmington town Supervisor Randy Preston, who died in July 2019. Preston was known for years as a strong advocate for limiting excess road salt use.

Michelle Preston, Randy’s widow, said he would be “so honored and so humbled” to see the group celebrating the bill he fought for. She said he never stopped working hard at it, even while battling a brain tumor.

She said he loved the Adirondacks fiercely.

“We traveled all around the world,” she said. “Everywhere that man would go, he would pull out his phone to show people, ‘This is where you need to go. This is the most beautiful place on earth.'”

Task force members

The 14-member task force is be made up of people from environmental groups, the state Department of Transportation, local government, health departments, highway department and scientists.

The Dec. 16 press release from the governor’s office identified 10 of the members, who include former state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens; Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board Executive Director Gerald Delaney; Adirondack Council Vice President for Conservation Megan Phillips; ADKAction Executive Director Brittany Christenson; Kristine Stepeneck, a member of the International Joint Commission — the U.S. and Canada’s watershed quality organization; Philip Sexton, the founder and managing director of WIT Companies, a sustainable winter management company; Robert Kafin, who chairs the Council on the Environment of New York City; Warren County Public Works Superintendent Kevin Hajos and Hamilton County Superintendent of Highways Tracy Eldridge.

The task force will be chaired by the DEC and DOT.

“I have no doubt that this group of individuals will work tirelessly to protect our state from the adverse effects of road salt,” Hochul said in a statement. “We look forward to seeing this group finally convene and make progress in preventing further pollution to our waterways and our environment.”

Kelting said he’s excited to work with this group. He’s worked with some members extensively before, and some will be new for him.

Why the hold up?

The bill has stalled several times in its path.

The bill was sponsored by North Country state legislators, including retired state Sen. Betty Little, Jones, and state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, who was an assemblyman at the time. It found bipartisan support in the state Legislature.

After the state Legislature passed the bill in July 2020, it sat for months on Cuomo’s desk until he finally signed it in December 2020, after requests from government leaders and green groups.

No one had been appointed by the time Cuomo resigned in August amid a slew of sexual harassment and corruption allegations. Then Hochul took his seat, but appointing members of this task force was not at the top of her priority list.

Still, Kelting said Hochul appointed members to the task force pretty fast, and he’s glad she’s taking it seriously.

Salt solutions

One of the solutions Kelting is interested in are lowering speed limits in certain areas during winter months. The higher the speed limit, the more salt is needed, he said. With a lower speed limit, he said departments can focus on sanding and plowing while still keeping roads safe.

When he drove home from Paul Smith’s College on Sunday, Dec. 19 after a heavy weekend snowfall, Kelting said he was traveling at around 55 miles per hour.

“Should I expect to be able to do that?” he asked.

He proposed that with public education and less salt, people can know winter brings less clean roads and to keep wells and waterways clean, they’ll have to drive a bit slower.

He also said with federal infrastructure money coming to the state, the task force will also look at new paving and plow blade technologies.

The task force will also be looking at the results of ongoing road salt reduction pilot programs on state Route 86 in Lake Placid and state Route 9 in Lake George.