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Experts Say Road Salt Threat to Environment

It's something we use for safety, but experts say in the long run, road salt could be more damaging than helpful.
STATE COLLEGE, CENTRE COUNTY - It's something we use for safety, but experts say in the long run, road salt can be more damaging than helpful.

Road salt has been used for years to melt ice. Studies show from 2005 to 2009, 23 million tons of salt were applied to our roads, parking lots, sidewalks and driveways each year.

Experts say all of that salt is melting and running off into local streams and ultimately ends up in our drinking water.

They say at this point, the salt runoff is more dangerous for the organisms and animals living in and around creeks and streams, but say if something isn't done to keep chloride from getting into our drinking water, it could be more detrimental down the road.

It's a resource we use all the time. In fact, if you look outside, you'll probably see some sticking around on the road from the last snow storm.

But experts say that salt you see lying in the roadway is dangerous.

"We don't fully understand the effect of low level chronic exposure of aquatic organisms to chloride," Mark Ralston, Hydrogeologist for Converse Consultants in State College, said. "You can make the case that the less you can do, the better."

Ralston says researchers have been trying to find alternatives for a few years, but haven't found the perfect solution yet.

He says now, we're seeing the effects. A graph made by the Water Resources Monitoring Project shows levels of chloride found in Spring Creek in State College are increasing.

"There's roughly two to three times more chloride than generally measured in water in that location," Ralston said.

"At the moment, the problem is beginning and we still have time to correct it," Penn State Office of Physical Plant Business Operations Coordinator, Paul Ruskin, said.

He and a team of engineers at Penn State are trying to do just that.

"Instead of sodium chloride, we are using magnesium chloride and we use a brine spray application," Ruskin said. "Instead of sprinkling the salt on the sidewalks, we apply it with a spray machine. It's very efficient and accurate."

Accurate and easier to control. Ruskin says trying new methods like this one is a step in the right direction.

"Ultimately, everything you put on the road gets into the water supply. The trick is to find the right balance," he said. "By using the spray, we end up using less salt, so it will still get into the water, but there will be less of it to contaminate."

Agencies like Penn DOT are trying to find alternative solutions, including using beet juice and molasses to treat roads.
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