NYS DOT: A-salting the ADKs and Their Residents

A Background On Road Maintenance and Salt

The general consensus is that the environment needs protection; that man kind, gone unchecked will destroy the natural world, use all it’s resources and be left to live on a dusty ball of rubbish. We are then led to believe that the only way to protect the environment and all it’s natural beauty – and keep humanity safe for eternity – is through regulation and laws passed down from the State. While I do think the natural world has some intrinsic value, it is not through State dictation through laws and regulations that this value be implied or protected; rather, that protection should come through private property rights.

If you are not aware, a good chunk of Northern New York is made up of the Adirondack National Park, a 6.1 million acre park that includes the Adirondack Mountain Range, over 10,000 lakes, and 30,000 miles of streams and rivers. Nearly half of the acreage is privately owned, but is under heavy restrictions placed by the Adirondack Park Agency, the other half is owned by the state. This means that there is a great infrastructure of roads running in and out of the park for both local residents and tourists looking to hike, canoe, ski, or otherwise enjoy the natural world that the park provides.

snow plow 2
A snow plow clearing roads somewhere in New York.

As you can imagine, winters in Northern New York can be rather daunting, especially the higher elevations in the mountains: there is ice, snow, steep slopes, billowing winds, curving roads, sub-zero temperatures, and, of course, people. In an attempt to melt the snow and ice and keep travelers safe, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) plasters the roads with salt. During the off seasons, the salt is stored in massive piles, most of the time in a giant dome shaped salt barn, but there are some piles that are left exposed to the elements year round.

In the 1970s, the National Wildlife Federation called out the use of salt to melt ice on roads as being potentially harmful to the environment, and as it would turn out, they were partially correct. According to Dan Kelting, an Environmental Sciences professor at Paul Smith’s College, New York State began using heavy doses of road salt in the 1980s and in the time that has passed, NYS has used over 7 million tons of salt on the road.1 The salt melts the ice, gets washed away by rain, pushed into the ditches by snow plows, and eventually finds its way into lakes, rivers, streams, and ground water, where it causes problems for both nature and humans.

Salt is a naturally occurring mineral that is often added to foods (sometimes in great quantities) to enhance flavors. It is also a necessary mineral to our basic survival as human beings; however, when too much salt is introduced to the diet, there are a number of health concerns that can rise, including: hypertension, stroke, and heart disease to name a few. Of course, no one is saying the general salt contamination in well water from salting the roads is so bad that it can cause these diseases (in some houses though, the well water is no longer potable), but individuals who suffer from hypertension – aka: high blood pressure – or who may have already suffered a heart attack or heart disease, that would need to monitor their sodium intake may unknowingly consume too much salt in their water and risk future health problems.

The Current State Monopoly Approach

The amount of salt in the ground water also causes secondary health effects. If you have lived in a place where they salt the roads, you will recall seeing a white minerally buildup on the rocker panels of your vehicle. You will also notice that once your vehicle starts to rust, it spreads quickly. This is from the salt on the roads, and why you wash your car more in the winter, than in the summer. What’s happening is that salt is a corrosive agent; it is corroding the metal parts of the vehicle and breaking them down, this same thing happens to water pipes, and unfortunately, many older pipes contain harmful substances such as lead. So when the salt water starts to corrode pipes, it also begins to release lead, and other harmful substances contained in the pipes. (This is essentially what happened in Flint, MI.) Not only does this cause secondary health effects, but it also adds undue infrastructure stress on both public and private water systems as well as any appliances that utilize the water, as parts tend to wear out sooner and need replacement earlier than expected.

While run-off may add to the salt contamination issue, the main source of salt contamination comes from the salt barns – where they store the salt. As you can imagine, a big pile of concentrated salt will slowly seep into the ground from the rain and humidity. And this is where we are today. It has happened in a few towns – notably Orleans, NY – that the salt has seeped into the ground water and has wreaked such havoc on the infrastructure that the town water systems need to be replaced.2,3 This replacing also comes with a very high price tag in the millions, sometimes exceeding $10 million.

A semi exposed salt barn in Western NY, sometimes they don’t even have that plastic cover.

In a number of Northern New York towns, the state has come in and cleaned up the mess, laying down new waterlines, however, this cost is passed on to residents – both directly and indirectly – for example in Palmelia, NY, the DOT laid new pipe along route 342, but by then many homeowners had already spent thousands replacing appliances and plumbing fixtures in their own homes, and on top of that, these homeowners were required by the state to pay an additional water bill of $2500 to cover capital costs of the project.4 In the town of Orleans, where the project was estimated to cost $13 million, the town received a $100,000 grant from the state and an $11 million interest free loan, but it wasn’t enough to cover the project and residents were left with the option of covering the $1.9 million difference by adding an extra $1000 a year to their water bill. Don’t forget, the $11 million would eventually have to be paid back – by taxpayers funding the town. In the situation with Orleans, despite numerous studies tracing salt concentrations back to the salt barn, the DOT does not claim responsibility for the contamination. This is not the first, nor will it be the last time this happens, but par the course, State led pollution is usually kept quiet and the State seldom takes responsibility. In the case of many towns in Northern New York, even when officials have accepted blame for contamination, officials have gone so far as to say that the contamination of a private well is a problem for the well owner, not the State.

To make this even more disturbing, consider where the funding for the $11 million interest free loan and the $100,000 state grant came from: the tax payers of New York. And don’t forget, NYS DOT receives federal funds ear marked for particular projects, so essentially, the loan money, and the grant money are coming from every single tax payer in the country.

dot plow
Many studies claim the NYS DOT is responsible for well water contamination, not the DOT though!

It seems a bit convoluted, but broken down it goes like this:

A State run monopoly with required membership enforced by the State, and funded by tax-payers creates an environmental health problem. The State run monopoly then loans tax-payers their own money to fix the problem. It then forces residents to pay an extra fee for the new work.

There is no winning when you sue a tax-payer funded organization, you are in essence suing yourself.

A More Minarchist Approach

If we look to the free market and more liberty-centered solutions we will find that there are a few different options we can follow. The first is just smaller government. The NYS DOT is a state wide organization. They consider all state highways their jurisdiction and treat them accordingly. When we examine the facts, however, most of the small towns in the Adirondack park don’t actually use salt. Instead they use sand. Now sand doesn’t clear the roads down to pavement, but it also doesn’t effect the water table as drastically. (It may cause some siltation in rivers and streams, but that seems the lesser of two evils when compared to salinization.) Local towns also use sand instead of salt, because it is cheaper and they don’t have the massive tax base that New York State does. In fact, New York State uses 2.5 times more salt on the roads than local municipalities do.5

When a small town creates an environment of toxicity for both private individuals and businesses, it is easy enough to pick up and move locations, but remain in close proximity to jobs, family, and friends. The State has very little vested interest in where their citizens go as a move out of state is much less likely than a move from one town to another (moves within the same country are twice as likely as moves between counties, let alone States.6) Consider the economics of a person moving from a town of 200 versus a state of 20 million; just based on a percentage of tax-base alone, a person is much more valuable to a small town than the state, likewise the incentive of a small town to keep citizens is much higher than that of the state.

Snow Beet
Beet juice – the liquid left over after the sugar has been removed from beets – is one alternative to road salt. Imagine how many other alternatives might exist if there was a bit more incentive.

A Slightly More Anarchistic Approach

We can also look at this from a more drastic lens and consider that the roads be privatized. It sounds scary, but it makes sense, and it keeps everyone healthier. If the roads were privatized, and owned by a third party, it would be up to the third-party to keep the roads clean. Undoubtedly, they would want to keep their roads clean of snow and ice to ensure safe travel and happy customers. In order to do so, they could utilize the current State model and use copious amounts of salt, but as we’ve seen in many instances above, salt gets into the ground water and contaminates wells. Unlike the State, which has unlimited funds to repair damage, a third-party’s resources are limited. There are many examples of private corporations being held responsible for environmental pollution, when GE contaminated the Hudson, they were forced to pay for clean up, a third-party that owned the roads and subsequently contaminated the ground water would be held responsible for clean up and rectification. Restaurants and businesses that couldn’t afford to constantly replace appliances and in turn left towns in Northern New York, could recoup costs from the third-party responsible for the contamination, stay in their local residence and continue to build the economy. A third-party would know this and out of necessity, go out of their way not to contaminate their surroundings and would either come up with a better way to store the salt, or they would come up with another way to clean the roads.

A third-party would also be solely responsible for storing the salt. In some towns, residents did not want to build covered salt barns, surely an uncovered mound of salt will contaminate more ground water than a roofed salt barn, but as it was a publicly run entity, the residents made the choice to leave the salt uncovered. If a private entity was responsible for containing the salt, the public would have no choice in how it was stored and, in looking out for their best interest, the private entity would cover the salt.

The difference between the State and private corporation is competition. The State has no competition, and there is no limit to their funds. When they damage private property, they are seldom held accountable and when they are held accountable, the damage costs are just another line item on next years budget that every tax-payer will have to answer for, this is not the case for a private corporation. Rather, quite the opposite. Private corporations funds are limited by their resources. Imagine how shareholders would react if a company kept going over budget every year and just increased product pricing in an attempt to cover the difference. That company wouldn’t last very long. The State also has a monopoly on competition. Sure, there are elections every few years, but in 2016 “when voters cast ballots for state representatives [last fall], millions of Americans essentially had no choice: In 42 percent of all such elections, candidates faced no major party opponents.”7 This lack of competition does not exist in the private sector, as soon as another company sees an opportunity to step in and make some money, they will and the competition can drive prices down and increase quality of goods and services. It is shameful that residents of Northern New York do not have the ability to make these choices to help keep their lives safer and the environment healthier, and it is even more shameful that it seems a fairly standard practice that State level politicians would suggest contamination on their behalf is the responsibility of the private property owner.

References and Credits

1,5Study: Road salt has contaminated wells, lakes, streams in Adirondacks
2Frustrated with inaction, Orleans will try to hold DOT accountable for salt contamination
3The problem with salt: Road salt contamination a plague across the state
4Pamelia residents close to DOT salt shed experience water contamination problems like Orleans’
6Geographical Mobility: 2015 to 2016
7 Democracy With No Choices, Many Candidates Run Unopposed
Photo 1: Road salt pollutes drinking water wells in suburban New York State
Photo 2:The Duke Company
Photo 3: DOT Snow Plow
Photo 4: Experimenting With Beet Juice