My Town Tried to Tell Me There’s No Road Salt in This Photo

Dave Bell
Excessive salting in a neighborhood - credit Dave Bell

In late January 2019, I observed a township truck spreading salt in my neighborhood ahead of what turned out to be a dusting of snow. The driver spread so much salt it turned the streets white—and chunks of salt went onto the sidewalks and front lawns throughout the neighborhood in eastern Pennsylvania.

I contacted the town’s Public Works department and was told they don’t salt ahead of snowstorms, despite evidence to the contrary. The person I spoke with repeatedly insisted that the salting did not happen, yet they offered increasingly implausible explanations for where the plainly visible salt came from. My favorite was speculation that an unknown former employee took a salting truck out for a joy ride.

That autumn, Streamkeeper training sponsored by local watershed associations focused on the Izaak Walton League’s Salt Watch program. I learned how snow melt and rain carry road salt into our waterways, how chlorides in the creek harm wildlife and degrade water quality, and that watersheds from Harrisburg to Philadelphia (including ours) had high chloride levels the previous winter. With the oversalting I had witnessed the previous winter in mind, I signed up for Salt Watch and began monitoring two sites in the winter of 2019-2020.

Monitoring local headwater sites, networking with other Streamkeepers and Salt Watchers, and compiling data from Salt Watch, Stroud Water Research Center, and the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (TTF) gave me enough information to begin taking these actions:

  • Bring the issue to the attention of my town’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC)

  • Have the town post Smart Salting guidelines, best practices and resources on its website

  • Get permission to post salt advisories on EAC social media

  • Initiate contact with local officials to let them know I monitor chloride levels in two creeks in the town and have found levels to be persistently high and toxic to aquatic life

  • Follow up with town officials to inform them that since the winter of 2019-2020, chloride levels at the sites I monitor are increasing, with maximum levels of 569 parts per million (ppm) in December 2020 and in excess of 610 ppm (off the scale) in January 2022

  • Participate in “chloride blitzes” organized by TTF and Stroud

  • Test my home tap water and find that it exceeds the recommended sodium level in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2003 Drinking Water Advisory

  • Obtain unpublished lab reports from the regional supplier of drinking water confirming the result of my home test

  • Contact town officials again (after our 2022-2023 no snow/no salt winter) with the latest results from Salt Watch, TTF, and Stroud, along with the news that our drinking water exceeds EPA’s guidelines for sodium in drinking water

  • Ask neighbors to let town officials know they are concerned about road salt in creeks and drinking water

  • Contact town officials ahead of the winter of 2023-2024 to remind them that salt persists in our freshwater creeks year-round, is likely in the groundwater, and is showing up in our drinking water

After taking all these actions, I talked to the town manager. He replied that he has moved the road salt issue “off the back burner” and has asked the EAC to come up with recommendations for reducing the town’s impact. But he noted that it is a complex issue with no easy answer. I respectfully reminded him of all the resources I have given him for applicator training, best practices, and alternative products (many of these from Salt Watch), that communities that get a lot more snow than we do have found ways of reducing their impact, and that town officials have a duty to address this environmental/public health issue.

Conversations like this take time. There’s no change in the town’s road salting practices yet, but I’ll keep at it.

The best time to start a long conversation is now. Get started with Salt Watch today.

Top photo: This extreme oversalting inspired Dave to press for better practices in his community. Credit: Dave Bell.

Dave Bell is a Merchant Marine Officer, Master Watershed Steward, TTF volunteer Streamkeeper, and author of the books Awesome Chesapeake: A Kid’s Guide to the Bay and Chesapeake Bay Walk.

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