Road salt threatens Great Lakes

18 Apr 2018 3:23 PM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

TORONTO—Road salt is fast becoming the new phosphorous, according to Elizabeth Hendriks, vice-president, Freshwater Program at the World Wildlife Fund. Although the situation is not yet a crisis, Ms. Hendriks said that she was very pleased with the funding allocation in the new Ontario budget aimed at getting ahead of the problem—but there is plenty we can all do to ensure Ontario’s fresh water stays fresh.

“We have been working on the road salt issue for over a year now,” said Ms. Hendriks. “It is great to see the government has seen this as an issue that we need to get ahead of.”

Recent studies on inland lakes and rivers have raised the alarm on rising levels of salinity in those bodies. “Our rivers are turning into oceans,” said Ms. Hendriks. “Salt levels are so high. The government has identified salt as a toxic substance.”

Ms. Hendriks said that she anticipates it will not be long until road salt “becomes the next phosphorus.” For decades now, governments, NGOs, cottager associations and individuals have targeted phosphorous with diligence and some effect, although some Great Lakes are still experiencing negative impacts from phosphorous. “Lake Erie is experiencing huge algae blooms,” noted Ms. Hendriks. Remediating a problem that has been allowed to get out of hand is generally a lot harder than getting ahead of an issue and preventing it from becoming a potential ecological disaster.

Salt has been fingered as a major negative environmental factor for marine life in freshwater eco-systems.

With government onside, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done on the public education side of things. “It’s not the water we need to manage,” suggested Ms. Hendriks, “it’s the people.”

There are plenty of options for a grassroots approach to helping deal with the issue. “One thing people can do themselves is to dial back on their own use of salt,” said Ms. Hendriks. “We encourage people to shovel their walkways and driveways (instead of just laying down copious amounts of salt) and wear winter boots.”

When it comes to the larger parking lots and malls, let your concerns be known to the management, she suggests. “If you see a mall parking lot being salted, let the management know that you would prefer they find another way of keeping their lots clear.”

Concerns about slips, falls and the associated legal ramifications have gotten out of hand, suggests Ms. Hendriks. “We need to dial back on the liability.”

Ms. Hendriks suggests that businesses and municipalities can seek out Smart About Salt certified contractors when they are arranging to have their lots taken care of over the winter. The Smart About Salt program is offered by the Smart About Salt Council, a not-for-profit organization which offers training to improve winter salting practices on facilities and recognizes industry leaders through certification. Its programs can be accessed at

“It’s a day-long training session that provides information on the most effective use of salt,” said Ms. Hendriks.

Winter salt is economical to purchase, readily available and an effective tool for keeping surfaces clear of ice, notes the Smart About Salt website. “However it is important to manage its use to reduce the negative impact winter salt can have on our environment. Salt damage costs us all. As individuals, it affects our clothes, shoes, animal friends, lawns, gardens and vehicles. In our communities, it damages sidewalks, roads, buildings and bridges and leads to increased maintenance costs.”

Ms. Hendriks pointed to the Elliot Lake Mall collapse tragedy as an example. “Salt was a contributing factor,” she noted.

As for the province’s largest user of road salt, through its road contractors, the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) says it keeps a close rein on its use. “The Ministry of Transportation takes its responsibility for the safety and mobility of the motoring public and the environment seriously,” responded Gordan Rennie, regional issues and media advisor for the Northeast. “MTO utilizes best management practices to ensure only the right amount of road salt is used for each winter storm. The ministry is fully compliant with, and in some cases exceeds, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Code of Practice for Environmental Management of Road Salt. The code was developed to reduce the environmental impact of road salt while maintaining roadway safety.”

Mr. Rennie went on to note that “MTO uses the following approaches to maximize the effectiveness of road salt used and minimize the environmental impact: Direct Liquid Application (DLA) is used prior to winter storms to proactively apply anti-icing liquids preventing the snow and ice from bonding with the road surface. This reduces the need for road salt. You may have seen this on the road as thin white lines. In Northeastern Ontario DLA is typically used on higher volume highways such as Highways 11, 17 and 400.”

In addition, “salt can be pre-wet with an anti-icing liquid to help it stick to the road, reducing the amount bouncing into the ditches. This enables a reduction in the salt application rate.   

Electronic Spreader Controllers ensure a consistent application of salt across the pavement regardless of the vehicle speed. Automated Vehicle Location is used to track salt applied to the road to ensure best management practices are achieved. Road Weather Information Stations are used across the province to accurately forecast the weather and pavement conditions to effectively plan winter maintenance operations and identify the most effective response to each storm.”

Even moving the material around is kept under close eye. “All salt is delivered in covered trucks, stored in covered facilities with impermeable bases to prevent loss to the environment,” said Mr. Rennie. “MTO works with stakeholders across Ontario, Canada and the United States to research new products and procedures to deliver better snow and ice control performance with less environmental impacts. This includes anti-icing liquids and processes to enhance the performance of road salt.”

As to investigating road salt alternatives, Mr. Rennie noted that the “MTO continues to monitor alternatives to road salt. There are a number of alternatives, including but not limited to: calcium chloride, magnesium chloride and calcium magnesium acetate. These alternatives typically cost significantly more than road salt and require higher application rates than road salt to achieve the same results. There are also environmental impacts associated with the road salt alternatives.”

Citizen groups are stepping up across the North to tackle the issues close at hand. Sudbury is a good example of that movement. The Greater Sudbury Watershed Alliance (GSWA) recently released its ‘Road Salt Discussion – Summary Report (Summary Report).’ This report was the result of the Road Salt Discussion event held on February 5 at the Vale Living with Lakes Centre.

A press release notes that at the event GSWA hosted a science panel made up of Dr. John Gunn, Canada research chair, Stressed Aquatic Systems and Director of Vale Living with Lakes Centre; Dr. Charles Ramcharan, associate professor, School of the Environment at Laurentian University; and Anoop Naik, water resources specialist, with Conservation Sudbury.

The purpose of the event was to raise an awareness, and to explore possible solutions to increasing sodium and chloride levels in Ramsey Lake, a primary source of drinking water for over 50,000 residents in the City of Sudbury.  Ramsey’s sodium levels are approaching three times the level at which the Medical Officer of Health must be notified so patients on sodium-restricted diets can be alerted; and chloride levels are rapidly approaching a level that can harm aquatic life.

“GSWA has formally expressed concern with the City at every opportunity with regard to the additional winter road salt required to service the Second Avenue Industrial Improvements, the proposed casino parking lot, and the numerous other road projects proposed in the recent Transportation Study Report,” the group states. “We are also concerned that the Ramsey Lake Sub-Watershed Study is not adequately considering the road salt issue.”

As Dr. Gunn reminded us, “with our rocky thin soil, we have very little resistance to the hydraulic changes of climate change, and the current sub-watershed study is not facing this future at all.” 

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