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Environment and Outdoors

Report calls for Maine to use less road salt as climate change brings wilder winters

Road Salt Sticker Shock
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - In this March 12, 2018 file photo, road salt is mixed by a front-end loader prior to loading onto public works trucks in Freeport, Maine. Budget-busting road salt prices are leaving local officials hoping for a mild winter. Salt supplies are tight on the heels of a harsh winter last year that depleted reserves. Prices localities paying now per ton vary widely based on the supplier, shipping costs and other factors. But they tend to be higher in snowy parts of the East.

Winter storms are expected to put more stress on Maine’s roads as the climate warms, bringing more frequent cycles of melting and freezing.

Now, University of Maine researchers have released a new report (available below) on one source of that stress: the salt that keeps roads, parking lots and sidewalks free of ice and snow.

Although it's important for safety, road salt can be harmful to streams, wildlife and drinking water supplies. It’s also a huge expense, costing Maine taxpayers roughly $150 million per year in the winter from 2019 to 2020. Towns and cities shouldered about two-thirds of those costs.

Overall, the reports calls for Maine to lessen its reliance on road salt.

Jonathan Rubin, one of the authors of the report who leads the university’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, says that municipalities should re-evaluate how much salt they use, just as they might with their police or school budgets.

“I think the same conversation needs to occur, which is, how quickly do we really want our roads cleaned? And can we live with maybe homes in front of small rural areas, maybe they don't get down to bare pavement?” he says. “You can't make one decision for the state as a whole. It's going to have to be on a town-by-town basis. They need to know who's vulnerable, who's not vulnerable. That's why you can't have a top down approach to this.”

One pilot project in the Portland-area is now evaluating how to reduce the use of road salt in the Long Creek watershed.

The researchers — who did their report at the request of the Maine Department of Transportation — also recommend that state officials provide more training to municipal and private plow crews on reducing their dependence on road salt.

They point to one approach in neighboring New Hampshire, in which contract road crews who take a state training on proper salt use can receive liability protection against people who are injured in areas they serve.

And the researchers suggested that more education will be needed for members of the public, who may have come to expect a certain level of snow-clearing after every winter storm, or need a reminder to drive more carefully in times of snow or sleet.

Rubin recalls one big storm a couple weeks ago that dumped eight to 10 inches near his home in the Bangor area.

“The next day, I was happy to drive to Mount Desert Island and go skiing,” he says. “Is it reasonable that we can have a 10 inch snowstorm and then the next day I can drive 100 miles to go? You know, maybe it is reasonable, but that's what we're talking about.”

Brian Burne, a highway maintenance engineer for Maine DOT, said he appreciates the findings in the new report, which compile a variety of data on road safety, funding, weather patterns and chloride contamination in drinking water supplies.

He hopes that it will remind communities of the environmental harms from overuse of road salt. He also hopes that more drivers can do things such as buying winter tires, which makes it safer to drive before roads have been totally cleared of snow and ice.

“Ideally, you plan to the point where you don’t have to be out during the storm, but a lot of us have jobs that require us to be there, and there are things that aren’t avoidable,” he says. “You might as well be prepared and get snow tires.”