HARRISBURG — When winter weather strikes Pennsylvania, a massive fleet of PennDOT plow trucks and salt spreaders await a speedy dispatch.
But environmental groups warn the over-use of salt and other chemical road de-icers can have a negative effect on waterways.
“Of course, salt is used to keep our roads passable and keep us safe,” said Harry Campbell, executive director for the Pennsylvania office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “But the research is indicating that a lot of the salt is accumulating in our groundwater, as well as in the soils alongside streams.”
If a freshwater body of water, such as the Susquehanna River, receives an unnatural level of salt, typically in the form or runoff, the pH level can spike.
“So, trout and other fish, and other things that rely upon that stream water quality can get directly affected by the amount of salt that is running into our streams,” Campbell said.
According to PennDOT, the agency used an average of 900,000 tons of salt in the past five winter seasons to treat roads statewide. The salt is applied as both a liquid brine solution and in its dry rock salt form, depending on the moisture content of a snow event.
Aware of environmental concerns, PennDOT contracted with Temple University in 2015 to conduct a study of salt and other de-icers’ potential effects on water quality. The $90,000 study is being funded through federal research dollars, and is expected to conclude by the end of 2018.
“We want to be good stewards of our resources, and also keep the roads open to the motoring public,” said Mike Crochunis, a spokesman for PennDOT in central Pennsylvania. “We live where we work, and we care about the quality of the water.”
Crochunis said the use of modern technology in the PennDOT truck fleet has also helped to maximize the efficiency of salt and de-icing chemicals, while spreading less material onto the road.
“We can put it where we want it to go,” he said. “We can add water to it to make it stick to the road and keep it within the driving lanes. The salt isn’t spreading out everywhere at the same speed all the time, as it once did many years ago. The goal is efficiency.”