Pollution solution? Town seeks alternative for salt on roads
Winter’s ice and snow will return, and the town’s red trucks will be out spreading a salt-based product on the roads to help keep them clear — for another year, anyway.
But a committee of town officials will be undertaking what they envision as a wide-ranging study of what other communities around the nation do, seeking alternatives to putting salt on the roads — where it drains into and pollutes groundwater, aquifers, wetlands and watercourses.
“There’s really no alternative to salt,” Dave Buccitti of the town highway department told the Board of Selectmen.
Buccitti, Public Works Director Peter Hill, Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli and Planning and Zoining Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti joined the selectmen’s Aug. 21 meeting for a discussion of using salt on the roads, and the environmental implications of the practice.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi said that at a meeting earlier in the year of Western Connecticut Council of Governments, the regional planning agency Ridgefield belongs to, a representative of the state Department of Health’s Public Drinking Water Section had said wetlands running along highways show signs of the problem that use — or, at least, overuse — of ice-melting products can create.
“There is no sign of any wildlife,” he said, “ because of the salt.”
“The salt we use, it’s treated. It’s supposed to be environmentally-friendly,” said Hill.
Ice-thawing products use a variety of additives — “molasses, beet juice, pickle juice” — but always in combination with salt, Buccitti said.
Salt alone is effective only down to about 27 degrees Fahrenheit, Hill said, and the various additives lower the temperature range in which it is effective.
But none of that will address the long-term problem of salt polluting groundwater, which the selectmen have been talking about since they were addressed on the concern some months by a well driller, Henry Boyd.
Thursday’s meeting kicked around some ideas.
“We could go back to sand and salt,” Marconi said.
For many years the town used a sand-salt mixture, but for the last eight years — since 2007-08 — the town dropped the sand and has been using a “straight salt” treatment on icy roads.
In the old days snowy roads were simply covered with sand, but sand alone becomes less useful in providing traction once it begins to be “pulverized” by traffic rolling over it, according to Public Works Director Hill.
“Sand is good for the first 12 cars,” he said.
Marconi spoke of the problems in nearby Sherman, where the town has been doing studies to figure out what to do about five public wells that had been polluted with road salt. “The wells were shallow, 40 to 80 feet,” Marconi said.
Sherman has reportedly spent tens of thousands of dollars on bottled water for public buildings, and voters there will soon be asked to appropriate $15,000 for drilling a new well to serve the town’s firehouse and a playhouse — but the town isn’t even sure this will solve the problem, and it may also have to address problems with the well serving Sherman Town Hall.
Marconi said that the state’s “allowable limit” for salt in drinking water is 28 milligrams per liter and drinking water in Ridgefield could surpass that “if we continue our current trend in five to eight years.”
Marconi said he’d asked state authorities about the problem. “I said, ‘How are we going to address it?’ They said, ‘We already have. We’re going to raise the limit to 100.’ ”
That might address legal and bureaucratic issues, but it wouldn’t reduce health concerns related to the level of salt in the drinking water.
Public Works Director Hill said the state Department of Transportation had in recent years been using a different product on its highways.
“They switched to magnesium chloride — which is killing our bridges,” Hill said.
Marconi said the road treatments also create a problem with the undersides of vehicles — brake lines, transmission lines — rotting out within six, seven, eight years.
Hill noted that road salt might not be the only — or even the biggest — contributor to salt in Ridgefield’s groundwater.
“Fifty percent of homes in Ridgefield are being treated with water softeners,” he said. “...How does that affect someone, versus putting salt on the road?”
The interdepartmental study committee that will be looking into winter road treatments includes Dave Buccitti and Peter Hill for the Public Works Department, Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli, Assistant Planner Daniel Robinson, Wetlands Agent Beth Peyser, and P&Z administrator Aarti Paranjape, as well as selectmen Marconi and Kozlark.
Baldelli described for the Aug. 21 meeting the ambitious approach the study committee will take in looking for potential solutions.
“What we anticipate doing is, initially, research,” Baldelli said.
“We’re going to look at it countrywide. We’re going to see what other agencies do — especially in sensitive areas, like the Great Lakes and Mississippi River,” he said.
“Snow removal in the Northeast is different from Minnesota — we have freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw,” Baldelli said.
One of the questions will be “whether there’s a way to quantify the actual damage from various products,” he said.
“There’s a variety of things we’re going to look into,” Baldelli said.
“One addition I wanted to make is liability,” Marconi said. “Whatever we do we want to make sure we’re not creating liability.”
“Safety is our number one issue,” said Baldelli. “We’d never compromise that.”
The committee’s first meeting was on Thursday, Aug. 22, and Selectwoman Kozlark said afterwards that while the work would take some time, she was hopeful it would be productive in the long run.
“Planning is taking the lead on studying the effects and possible approaches to mitigate the salt usage,” Kozlark said. “It was an initial step and nothing will be implemented until fully vetted for safety and health of the town.”
She added, “At this time the town doesn’t have a good alternative to the ‘Ice B’Gone.’ I think it is encouraging that the town is initiating this discussion with the intent of some kind of implementation in the future.”