• Would you like some Salt with that?

    During last week’s small window of spring-like weather I, along with a few companions, took advantage of the above zero temps to sample the Sydenham River’s steelhead fishing. Sadly, the balmy weather didn’t last long. We dipped back into winter’s wrath the following day and once again I was shoveling snow, braving snow covered roads, and watching as drivers in front of me struggled to keep their vehicles straight in slippery conditions. Just two days ago I pulled out of Owen Sound’s downtown core and was immediately held up behind a City plow truck saturating the street with road salt. As I puttered along behind the truck, trying to stay out of rock salt range, I recalled a conversation with a close friend about their concern regarding the impact that salting the city streets has on the local environment, specifically the river. As I thought the issue through, I decided that it was time to do some research.

    A few weeks back the City of Owen Sound made an announcement that they were going forward with plans to use a new type of road salt on our city streets. The new salt is touted as “Blue and Green.” “Blue” being a reference to the salt’s actual colour (it really is a pale blue), and “Green” in reference to the claim that it was apparently better for the environment than the previous salt. I read the Media Release issued by the City and also took the time to go over the newspaper article discussing the shift in the Sun Times. All seemed rosy for those who like advancements in technology and bare pavement streets. However, the real questions for which I wanted answers were concerned with what impact the past road salt applications may have had on the environment and what impact this new product will cause.

    First and foremost, I would like to begin by acknowledging the fact that we live in Canada. Specifically, we live in a region of Canada where blasts of winter weather are common. Heavy snowfall is the norm in our area and, like it or not, driving in snowy conditions on snow packed roads is a fact of life. That being said, I spent many years living in Northern Ontario where winter weather is amplified. What is interesting about the north is that most regions do not depend on massive amounts of road salt like the City of Owen Sound. Municipalities in the north seem to rely on diligent snow plowing and sand applications for traction rather than dumping down the salt by the tonne. I realize the geography of Owen Sound causes the City to be on the ball when it comes to maintaining safe road conditions for motorists, but I have a growing sense that the heavy application of salt is not the answer . . . and here is why.

    Plenty of studies have been conducted around the Great Lakes in regards to the impacts of winter road salt applications on the environment, specifically urban river systems, and I mean plenty. There are road salt studies conducted along the Lake Superior stretch of the Trans Canada, there are studies devoted to the Credit River and the City of Mississauga, there is a great paper devoted to the impacts of road salt in the mega-city of Toronto, and there is a virtual plethora of studies focused on the Great Lakes cities within the U.S. and they are massive. Each study highlights the negative impacts which road salt has on freshwater streams and their inhabitants, and the picture they paint is quite scary.

    Scientists have found a threshold, so-to-speak, in terms of salt concentrations in rural rivers across the Great Lakes. To summarize, a ratio or concentration of 250mg of salt per litre of water is the baseline toxicity level to organisms in a river. This is the same baseline for acceptable potable water. To my shock, the vast majority of Great Lakes tributaries that pass through a major urban area exceed this level by leaps and bounds during certain times in the winter. High salt concentrations over 250mg/L in river systems begin to knock down invertebrate populations, can be lethal to the eggs of fish species, and cause major shifts in the release of toxins, such as heavy metals, which often rest at the bottom of riverbeds. These are major impacts we are talking about.

    Now I ask, has anyone noticed that there is major run-off into our two major streams in Owen Sound? The Sydenham and Pottawatomie River act as drainages for a City that is situated in a major valley. Runoff from City streets pours into these two rivers like feeder creeks during the spring melt. Look no further than the massive culvert that spews rain and melt water into the Pott just below 4th Avenue Bridge. Need more examples? How about the slurry of salty slush that gets blown and plowed off City bridges into the Sydenham, or the deluge of melt water that pours into that river this week as temperatures rise.

    Are you a dog owner in Owen Sound? Ever notice how your dog reacts to heavy applications of road salt on their feet? How about dropping your car keys in a downtown parking lot only to wince in pain as the salt content of the slush burns your paper cuts? Fishermen, ever notice how poor the icefishing tends to be on the inner harbor for most of the winter? Myself and a number of environmentally minded individuals believe that the concentrations of salt in river water in Owen Sound far exceeds the 250mg/L line by massive amounts.

    Now, I am not a scientist so I started asking around. I contacted the City of Owen Sound to see if they monitor salt concentrations in our river water. “No” was the answer. How about the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority, obviously they must monitor this? “No” was the reply there. I contacted the Ministry of Environment, as all signs seemed to put the onus on the MOE, but again no concrete reply in regards to sampling river water in the winter.

    All comparable information concerning comparable situations considered, I feel pretty confident in saying that salt concentrations on the Sydenham and Pott are well above acceptable levels and it has me worried about the health of our rivers. High salt content affects the benthic organisms which aide in the vital biological cycles of the river. Improper natural cycles in the watershed results in algae blooms and low O2 levels. Anyone out for a stroll along the Sydenham in summer has noticed this effect, it’s that nasty green bloom and noxious smell. High salt concentrations choke out small fish, which in turn affect the entire fish community in a negative way. Lastly, lets not forget Owen Sound’s history of industry, the remnants of which rest dormant at the bottom of the inner harbor in the form of heavy metals and toxins, how unfortunate that salt in the water draws these toxins out into circulation. Take into account the additives in road salt, such as the cyanide used as an anti-caking agent, and you have an interesting mix being added to the water. The system is out of whack and no one seems to worry.

    So the “new,” “green,” improved road salt called Thawrox that the City has purchased is the answer, right? Well, the product is not actually as environmentally friendly as claimed. Thawrox claims to be “less” toxic than other road salts. Sure there are “natural, environmentally-friendly additives” as the website claims, but this is still road salt. Road salt comes in three varieties, sodium chloride, calcium chloride, and magnesium chloride. ALL of these are toxic to the environment, though they vary ever so slightly. The main ingredient in Thawrox is magnesium-chloride, which is actually 15% more corrosive to concrete, and metal and more harmful to the environment than calcium chloride, the active ingredient in some other road salts. The aim of this product is to cut down on the amount of salt needed, you need roughly 30% less salt to achieve the same results. Not surprisingly, the new salt comes with a large price increase, roughly 30% more than the old stuff. Regardless, the new salt is still dumped on the streets and eventually enters the rivers. The City even claims on their website that heavy salt applications are used to “melt snowfall” on City streets, not to treat ice, but to melt snow reducing the need for plows.

    In the opinions of many, there are alternative options. For example, Banff Alberta is a community that depends on alternative means to keep roads safe and have banned the use of road salt within the park. Many communities in Central and Northern Ontario have found alternative options as well. There are ways to prevent major damage to our local watersheds while keeping roads safe without a huge cost to the taxpayer, but we haven’t embraced them. No, instead we need the quick fix, the simple solution that keeps roads ice-free as quickly as possible. Does the shift to Thawrox mean our streams are cleaner and we no longer need to worry about the effects of the salt? Nope, sorry, not buying it.

    Now, I understand we need safe roads for vehicles during the winter. The vast majority of the local population would take road salt over fender benders any day of the week. The safety of our citizens is of paramount importance. But do yourself a favor and research the impacts of road salt on the environment and structural integrity of bridges in municipalities. Road salt is one of the greatest contributing factors to the corrosion of basic components in bridges. Remember our most recent bridge repair in Owen Sound, it wasn’t that long ago, and I am sure it won’t be long until there is another.

    I am not about to petition our local community to protest the use of road salt in Owen Sound. I enjoy safe roads, as does everyone else. Instead, I challenge the decision makers to look for alternative means to alleviate the damage this does to our local environment. The safety of our roads does not necessarily have to come at the expense of the safety of our local ecosystems. Options exist for a better way to combat winter as examples can easily be found throughout the country. Sooner or later we need to start making decisions based on the environment we live in instead of taking the path of least resistance, and we’d best start making these choices soon, because sooner than you’d expect, it will be too late.
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