A plan to use 10% less road salt as part of a pilot project notwithstanding, the New York State Department of Transportation still spreads roughly 290 tons of the stuff every winter on the highway along Lake George’s west shore.
“The DOT was actually using less salt on the trips out, which was good, but in 2019, its drivers started making two to three times more frequent trips, so ultimately, there was no reduction at all in the use of salt,” said Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky.
Not only has the DOT continued to deposit the same amount of salt on Route 9N that it has every winter since 1980, it failed to reduce the use of salt on state highways throughout the Lake George basin, said Navitsky.
Over a 40-month period, Navitsky, Lake George Association Scientific Advisor Dr. Jim Sutherland and the LGA’s Brea Arvidson studied the DOT’s Pilot Project for the 17-mile stretch of Route 9N from Lake George Village to the base of Tongue Mountain, a project announced with great fanfare by New York State in 2018.
“Lake George is known worldwide for its pristine beauty, and this new pilot program will strive to keep our roadways safe while enhancing environmental sustainability. We are committed to working with stakeholders to reduce salt and retain the Adirondack Park’s beauty for generations to come,” Acting Transportation Commissioner Paul A. Karas stated in May, 2018.
During the Pilot Project, the DOT would “leverage (its) best management practices to reduce salt application rates while still satisfying the goals of maintaining safety on the state’s highway system,” the department stated in 2018.
Among other things, the DOT stated that it would: apply to the highway the salty, liquid solution known as brine, which acts as an anti-icing agent in advance of storms; use live edge plows that conform to a road’s erratic surfaces, removing as much snow and ice as possible from the highway mechanically; and track salt application rates, calibrate the salt spreading equipment, monitor salt use during storms and perform post-storm evaluations.
According to Jim Sutherland, there is no evidence to indicate that DOT applied brine more than a few times over the course of the Pilot Project.
But, he said, “it’s hard to know precisely what the DOT did or did not do because the agency was not forthcoming with information. If the DOT conducted post-storm evaluations, for instance, they were never made public.”
The DOT also promised to lead a strategic working group, one that would include municipalities and organizations such as the Lake George Waterkeeper to evaluate the effectiveness of the Pilot Project.
“Communication fell apart,” said Sutherland. “At first the DOT appeared interested in working with us to monitor the Pilot Project, but that fell apart. We had perhaps one meeting with DOT.”
According to Chris Navitsky, the researchers were forced to file Freedom of Information requests to retrieve the data necessary to calculate the trucks’ rates of application over the course of the study.
Among the study’s recommendations is a proposal to resume regular meetings of a salt reduction task force, one composed of state, county and local officials as well as environmental organizations.
“That might enable us correct the issues that we see are causing problems,” said Sutherland.
According to the Lake George Association, 40% of the 3,000 acres of roadway in the Lake George watershed are maintained by New York State.
And according to Chris Navitsky, New York State continues to spread 1,033 tons of road salt on many of those highways every winter.
As the study states, “While the exact total amount is not known, the export of chloride from (sub-watersheds) into Lake George on an annual basis must be staggering.”
This is far from being merely of academic interest, as Jim Sutherland points out.
He acknowledges the DOT’s policies dilute the efficacy of the strategies crafted to protect Lake George from chloride pollution.
Chris Navitsky concedes that chloride levels in Lake George have merely “plateaued” rather than dropping precipitously, as many had hoped would be the case when a coalition of Lake George municipalities and non-profits launched a “Road Salt Reduction Initiative” in 2015.
But, Navitsky insists, if New York State adopted the salt reduction strategies now followed by Warren County and most of its municipalities, the lake’s ecosystem could start to repair itself.