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SPECIAL REPORT: CLEAR ROADS, CLEAR ISSUES
Journey into World of Winter Road Maintenance Reveals Concerns, Conflicts, Progress—and a Long-Simmering Dispute in One Massachusetts Town
By Stephen Hochbrunn, NEIWPCC
Sodium chloride works. Spread the salt on a snowy, icy road and what was once slippery and perilous provides grip, safety. Traffic rolls. Students get to school, workers to jobs. Our economy keeps churning. But sodium chloride can also divide.
In Boxford, Mass., residents living near the interstate that runs through the eastern edge of the town have complained for decades about road salt contaminating the private wells that supply their drinking water. They are weary of waiting for a solution.
“What I want to know is a time frame,” said Michael Shapiro at a meeting with town officials on December 2. “Analysis is well and good, but what does it do me if I’m dead and gone? I’m not looking for compensation. I’m looking for clean water.”
Shapiro is among the dozens in Boxford who report disturbing increases in the sodium in their water, and who are pursuing their own proposed solution—a hook-up to adjacent public water supplies—while Boxford officials pursue an aggressive legal strategy to permanently shutter the state’s giant salt shed in town. Shapiro and his cohorts want results, not courtroom delays.
“The enemy is not the state,” he said. “The enemy is the salt that’s contaminating our water.”
New Tools, Old Treatment Sophisticated snowfighting technologies and processes have not diminished the nation’s taste for road salt. Sodium chloride continues to be the mainstay in the winter road maintenance arsenal, raising growing concerns about the environmental impact and spawning conflicts over the effect on drinking water.
All photographs by Stephen Hochbrunn, NEIWPCC, except where noted
The tense situation in Boxford is one sign of growing attention being paid around the region to the way we clear roads in winter—and the impact of current practices, particularly on water quality and aquatic life. Key research is underway in NEIWPCC’s member states, and the picture that is emerging is helping to clarify problems and potential solutions. State highway and environmental agencies are exploring innovative approaches to reducing the use of sodium chloride, which is cheap compared to the alternatives—but has long-term effects that make its true cost far higher. And amid unrelenting budget shortfalls, states are trying to control the cost of winter road maintenance, while meeting two pressing and sometimes competing goals.
“The safety of the traveling public is our first and foremost concern,” said John Narowski, an environmental services engineer with Vermont’s Agency of Transportation. “But we also need to respect the natural environment. Striking that balance is easier in some cases than others. But typically it’s a very demanding challenge for us.”
Spend enough time with this subject and one thing becomes clear: there is no single works-for-all ideal solution, except perhaps one. We could all just stay home and off the roads when they are slick. Wouldn’t that be nice—if it were realistic. Not everybody can telecommute. We need passable roads in winter, if only for emergency vehicles. The goal then is to clear highways, streets, and parking lots of ice and snow in the most cost-effective, most environmentally benign manner possible. That makes it sound simple. It is not.
Evolution of a Tradition
On a classically crisp October day, the salt piled high at Patrol Shed 528 near Derry, N. H., signaled the sweetness of fall was temporary; winter was on the way, and New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation was prepared. The salt had been purchased, delivered, stockpiled—and now it stood by, ready to work its magic on the lanes of Interstate 93, which wove through the woods behind the shed and roared with the noise of high-speed travel.
Ready for the Storm Frank Qualey (right), foreman of New Hampshire DOT’s shed in Derry, speaks with assistant foreman Pete Pelletier in front of the shed’s stockpile of road salt.
“On days like this, it’s hard to believe it’s ever going to snow,” said Frank Qualey, shed 528’s plain-talking, avuncular foreman. It was an idle remark—perhaps wishful thinking. For if anyone knew what was coming, it was Qualey. Every winter for decades, he’d been behind the wheel of a snowplow, and shifts could be long. In the shed’s central building, which houses Qualey’s work area and a break room, tattered couches lined the walls; soon they would be beds for exhausted drivers. In a vast garage, hulking vehicles equipped with sophisticated road-clearing systems sat poised and ready. The crew at shed 528 performs maintenance year-round on a 19.8 mile stretch of I-93, but it is in winter when the pace really picks up, when seasonal workers and their trucks are hired to help get snow off the highway. The seasonal crews do the plowing. Qualey and his men handle the other big job.
“The state does the salting,” Qualey said. “There are exceptions, but very few.”
At shed 528, crews take considerable care to efficiently use its sodium chloride—the chemical name for common salt, including typical road salt—but that it is used in volume at all is stunning when you consider its history. Before the Industrial Revolution, salt was rare, precious, and coveted. (Look to our language for evidence; “salary” comes from the Latin for money given to Roman soldiers to buy salt.) But with the advent of the modern, mechanized salt mine, what was precious became plentiful. Sodium chloride became ubiquitous as table salt and as a raw material for thousands of tasks, from preserving food to fixing dye.