Baranyai: Homeowners, business have role in cutting salt

11 Feb 2019 9:51 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

Recent warm weather melted a lot of snow, but as meltwater sluices into streams and sewers, it takes tons of road salt with it. Literally, millions of tons — an average of five million — are spread on Canadian roads each year, according to Environment Canada.

Road salt dissolves with the snow and ice and washes into wetlands, creeks and lakes. Most of it is sodium chloride — table salt — known to adversely affect freshwater ecosystems, soil, vegetation and wildlife.

Frogs and turtles — the canaries of fragile ecosystems — can’t survive elevated chloride levels. Rainbow trout die after a week of exposure to concentrations of 1,000 milligrams a litre. Some measurements in the Great Lakes region have found chloride levels as high as 20,000 mg/l. The chloride concentration of seawater is about 19,000 mg/l.

Chloride is classified toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). But road salts don’t make the list of CEPA’s Schedule 1 toxic substances because they’re considered a necessary evil.

Many municipalities are test-driving alternatives to reduce salting. Calgary pre-treats roads with beet brine to prevent ice from forming. The sticky solution reduces salt application as much as 50 per cent, according to manufacturer Lugr Enterprises, and it’s far less corrosive than salt. Other municipalities are experimenting with cornstarch salt brine and wood chips.

Roads are only half the battle. About 50 per cent of road salt contamination in the Great Lakes watershed may be caused by excessive salt use on private property, according to Live Green Toronto.

Environmental advocates aren’t advocating Canadians stop using road salt, just that we use less of it. “You only need a very small handful for a sidewalk slab,” says Kelsey Scarfone, water program manager for Environmental Defence Canada. “If it’s crunching under your feet, it’s way too much.” And people may not realize salt is completely ineffective at temperatures colder than -10 C.

Some over-application is liability overkill. Corporate properties typically contract out plowing and salting. Contractors may not be educated in best practices, or they may over-salt to mollify clients’ fears of slip-and-fall lawsuits. Canada has a voluntary code of practice for environmental management of road salts, but there are no mandatory reporting requirements, either federally or provincially.

Environmental Defence has joined WWF Canada and the Canadian Environmental Law Association in asking Ontario to create a provincial water quality objective for chloride. This step would allow for better monitoring of chloride levels, which is currently carried out by a patchwork of conservation authorities and municipalities, Scarfone says.

So far, the ministry has been noncommittal, but its new environment plan does promote “best management practices, certification and road salt alternatives” as part of its action plan for clean water, working with municipalities, conservation authorities and the private sector. Scarfone calls the plan “promising.”

Creating incentives for certification is a win-win opportunity, reducing both business costs and unnecessary salting. Scarfone points to New Hampshire’s successful Green SnowPro program, where the state indemnifies certified contractors against liability: a juicy carrot that removes the stick.

In Canada, the Smart About Salt Council offers training and certification for salt application. Executive director Lee Gould suggests mandatory certification would be welcomed by contractors and business owners alike.

“It’s a small business issue in my mind,” says Gould. “I’m not sure the personal injury lawyers share the same view, you’d have to ask them.”

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