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Road Salt Offers Safety, But Affects Public Water

Using salt and brine can make winter roads (at top) safer, but also may harm rivers, streams and drinking water, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation executive said.

By Andrea Sears, Public News Service
For The Post Publications

HARRISBURG PA – The same salt that melts ice and snow on slippery roads and sidewalks in Pennsylvania can also harm vegetation, aquatic life, and even humans, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

During 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation applied almost 900,000 tons of salt to state roadways. City and town road crews used thousands more. And while all that salt helps make icy roads safer, it also alters the chemistry of groundwater, rivers and streams, the foundation’s Pennsylvania executive director, Harry Campbell, reported.

The foundation is a non-profit organization that intents to protect the Chesapeake Bay’s six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed, and as part of its work monitors the effects of road salt on water quality. The watershed is home to more than 18 million people and 3,000 species of plants and animals.

Using salt and other compounds on highways, driveways, and sidewalks is important for public safety, Campbell acknowledged. But “these salts are changing the chemistry of streams and other bodies of water in the longer term,” he explained. They have “the potential to affect what lives in (a) stream, like brook trout or certain types of species that require fresh water in order to live.”

Just as importantly, he added, “the majority of Pennsylvanians get their drinking water from surface water sources … The intakes to public water supplies are relying upon these very streams and tributaries to our major waterways that are being affected,” Campbell said.

There are alternatives to salt that may lessen harm to pets or roadside vegetation, but Campbell claimed none is completely safe for the environment. All can make their way into the drinking water supply. Although drinking water is treated, Campbell adds overuse and misuse of road salts can make treatment more difficult and more costly.

The foundation’s recommendation?: a balancing act. It doesn’t advocate a stop to road salting or spraying brine, but instead promotes wiser usage to reduce their harmful effects.

Photo by Kent DuFault via Pixabay

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