Written in partnership with Watershed Partners: www.cleanwatermn.org
More than ten years ago, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) came to a frightening realization. After testing lakes and streams in the Twin Cities metro area, they discovered that chloride levels in many were climbing, and that some were already too salty to support fish. Further testing over the next ten years showed that 30% of private wells in the metro area had elevated levels of chlorides as well. MPCA staff knew that most of these salt impairments were the result of road salt getting washed off of freeways, streets and parking lots, so they reached out to state and local road crews for ideas of how to address the problem.
In 2008, MPCA worked with Fortin Consulting and the Minnesota Local Technical Assistance Program to design a winter maintenance training course for snowplow drivers that would give the crews practical advice on how to reduce salt use without compromising public safety. The training covers a variety of topics, including how to select the best road treatments for different weather conditions, calibrating equipment to apply just the right amount of salts and de-icers, and new technology that can help winter maintenance crews to do their work more efficiently. Over the past decade, thousands of providers have been trained and certified and many Minnesota cities and businesses have reduced their salt use and cut their winter maintenance budgets. A new version of the training has also been developed for parking lots and sidewalks.
Despite the success of Minnesota’s road salt training programs, however, private contractors still tend to over-apply salt on parking lots and sidewalks, often because they are afraid of “slip-and-fall” lawsuits. As a result, you can see piles of salt accumulating on parking lots and sidewalks by this time each year. Sue Nissen, one of the founding members of the citizen group StopOverSalting (SOS), thinks this is a problem.
“This salt becomes pollution that is permanent”, says Nissen, who is a Master Water Steward. “There is no feasible way to remove chloride once it dissolves in water. Combine that with the damage salt does to the environment, future drinking water supplies, and infrastructure — the cost of chloride pollution is enormous,” she says. “Drive around many parking lots and you’ll be sick to your stomach,” says this water sports devotee who spent summers boating and swimming in Clear Lake, Iowa. “With the next rainfall or snowmelt, everything from the parking lot will be in lakes and rivers, even in groundwater.” Worst of all, it takes just a teaspoon of salt to permanently pollute five gallons of water.
Motivated by their awareness that Minnesota’s waterways and wells are rapidly becoming permanently and irreversibly polluted, Nissen and the other members of SOS are supporting limited liability legislation that will reduce over-salting. The proposed legislation, built on similar laws passed in New Hampshire and Illinois, would provide liability exemption for contractors who attend the MPCA’s winter salt training, get certified, and document their practices. Multi-partisan support for this initiative is growing, and legislators in both houses are interested in authoring a Minnesota bill in 2018.
“Now we are working with a diverse coalition of business, clean water and government in favor that this idea,” says Nissen. “We need a culture change in Minnesota sooner rather than later because there are no do-overs on this topic. Once the chloride is dissolved in water, it’s there forever.”
To learn more about the MPCA Road Salt Training programs, go to: www.pca.state.mn.us/roadsalt.
For more on using salt wisely, check out Clean Water Minnesota’s page on sidewalk salt at www.cleanwatermn.org/using-sidewalk-salt-responsibly.