Where to Put the Snow
7:44 am
Tue February 8, 2011

Clean Streets Versus Clean Water

There has been an historic amount of snowfall around the Northeast.  So far in Hartford, at least 80 inches have fallen.

The extreme snowfall has pitted disposing snow against protecting the water.  Many cities in the Northeast have run out of space to put the snow and are asking for permission to dump it in waterways. As part of a collaboration with northeast stations, Monica Brady-Myerov of WBUR reports.

Federal law prevents dumping the snow in rivers, wetlands and the ocean and there's a good reason why. It's filled with contaminants.

“Obviously you have sand and salt that are used on the roadways,” says Ed Coletta of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.  

“You have debris perhaps. You have other things like oils and other fluids from automobiles and trucks. You have pet wastes. So these are all things that can cause a problem,” Coletta added.

But it's getting hard to find a place to put it. I recently visited a parking lot next to Boston Harbor where a dump truck was depositing snow.

"I’m out at the Black Falcon cruise terminal where much of this collected snow from Boston goes.  It’s one of more than six snow farms that's collecting all of this white stuff which is now really dirty and grimy and gray and just storing here right on the dock in Boston waiting for spring," said Monica Brady-Myerov standing in a parking lot.
 
There are piles just like this one around the Northeast in fields and parking lots. But now many are full and cities are asking for permission to dump the snow in harbors or other waterways. That’s creating a challenge for environmental regulators because there's both a need for cleared streets so fire trucks, ambulances and school buses get through, and clean water.

In some states, snow dumping is now trumping the environment. Recently the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection said it will allow cities that are running out of room to dump the snow in salt water.

“Our revised guideline offering this flexibility for in water disposal is consistent with EPA guidelines under Clean Water Act. And actually our approach now in Connecticut is very similar in other states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey,” said Dennis Schain spokesman for the Connecticut D.E.P.

But John Lipscomb with the New York environmental group, Riverkeeper, calls the change “terrible” and “shameful.”

"We always find a way to rationalize polluting our air and our water to save a buck. How many municipal parking lots exist? How many ball fields exist that are not being used in the winter? All these possibilities exists for taking snow.” said Lipscomb.

But Schain of the Connecticut DEP says many urban areas have spent a lot of money cleaning up snow and have run out of room.

“We think, given the kind of winter we are having,” said Schain, “that we do need to strike some reasonable balance between environmental protection and public safety.”

That's why the U.S. Coast Guard has been allowed to clear its base by pushing snow into Boston Harbor. Logan Airport also has permission. Other cities, such as New York, have snow melting machines that screen out debris and allow the water to flow into the sewer system where it’s treated.

In rural areas, the problem is not so much where to put the snow, but how to keep the melting salty snow out of drinking water. Kate Bowditch of the Charles River Watershed Association says Northeast states try to temper the use of road salt to protect the environment.

“People who drive around in the Northeast are probably familiar with seeing signs alongside the highway that say caution watershed area, low salt use area,” said Bowditch.

Salt can kill fish and other aquatic life. In New Hampshire, the number of water bodies with high levels of salt has doubled in the past three years. Because of this, some environmentalists want states to take a harder line, including John Lipscomb of Riverkeeper.

“If you have a freshwater fish tank in your family living room, you know you can't put salt in it. And so let's just treat our waterways the way we treat our own stuff,” said Lipscomb.

Keeping our water clean and the roads clear is expected to be a tough balancing act in the coming weeks.