Dumping plowed snow into bodies of water raises a few environmental issues

With huge quantities of snow lining Connecticut roads, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is giving cities and towns an option for getting rid of it — dump it in the water.

“We’re going to have to put the snow someplace,” said Guilford Director of Public Works Jim Portley, who figured they wouldn’t start dumping until next week, “and it’s a great opportunity to get rid of the snow.”

Environmentalists aren’t up in arms. “This is an emergency,” said Roger Reynolds of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “We understand that the snow has to go somewhere.”

But Reynolds said there are concerns. “It’s similar to dumping municipal solid waste in the waterway,” he said. “When plows pick snow up, there’s inevitably some debris.”

snow

A payloader moves piles of snow to the edge of a street in Branford. So far the town has not dumped the snow into the Sound.

 

DEEP is aware of this and has established a fairly strict protocol for dumping snow: It should be considered a last resort. All upland dumping locations must be fully exhausted. The snow cannot contain anything other than the road treatments used for melting snow. DEEP must be notified first. And the snow must be kept away from drinking water and sensitive areas such as wetlands.

“We have to strike a balance of protecting the environment with public safety and emergency needs,” said Oswald Inglese, director of DEEP’s water permitting and enforcement division.

In fact the state allowed the dumping of snow into bodies of water two winters ago, when a series of closely timed storms resulted in even more total accumulation than this blizzard did. While a few communities said at the time they were considering water disposal, Inglese said it’s not clear any did. A few have expressed interest this time, though none has yet.

What’s in the snow?

The so-called water disposal of snow raises the question of just what could wind up in there. The short answer is — it depends on who’s doing the dumping.

About a half-dozen years ago, the state Department of Transportation switched its road treatment from a 7:2 ratio sand-salt mixture to a “salt priority” already in use nationwide. It’s a mix of pure salt (sodium chloride), which can melt snow and ice down to about 20 degrees, and magnesium chloride, which helps push that melting point down to the single digits.

“The result is superior road conditions and faster more efficient cleanup during and after these events,” said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s better.”

He also said it’s better for the environment, and there is general agreement on that.

Sand can clog storm drains, cause water turbidity and it can bond to contaminants like oil on roadways, transferring them into the water. Sand remaining on the road after snow removal has to be swept up at the end of the season and disposed of, since it can’t be reused.

In DOT’s case, that meant thousands of tons of spent road sand every year. “You can’t just dump it,” Nursick said. “It’s considered a contaminated material, and fewer and fewer locations are willing to accept road sand.”

But there is also concern about its replacement.

“Chloride — that’s the environmental concern,” Inglese said. Long-term use can have toxic impacts, he said. “We see impairments in the health of aquatic ecosystems.”

But the biggest problem is if chlorides are dumped into inland fresh water. Inglese said for large fast-flowing rivers or Long Island Sound itself: “We’re not as concerned.”

While many municipalities are thought to have switched to mixtures similar to DOT’s, a few of those contacted by the CT Mirror have not.

Guilford, which said it intended to dump its snow in the water, though it had not yet notified DEEP, uses a 4:1 sand-salt mixture.

New Haven told DEEP it might dump snow in the water but later said, “We have no intention of dumping in the Sound,” said Public Works Director Doug Arndt. The city has been using sand and salt to treat roads during this storm.

Milford, one of the hardest hit towns with nearly 40 inches of snow, also uses a sand-salt mixture that is mostly sand. “We don’t believe it’s going to get to that point,” said Mayor Benjamin Blake of the possibility of dumping snow in the water. “I think that’s the last resort. “You’ve got to be worried about if there’s any kind of oil in it.”

Branford switched to pure salt this year, which First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos said is working better than the old mixture on the nearly 3 feet of snow the town received.

So far Branford public works has not put snow in the water. But DaRos said it could come to that in some of the tightly packed beachside areas where, on Monday, payloaders were stacking huge piles of snow along the edge of seawalls.

“It’s a very, valuable option for us to be able to use,” he said of water disposal of snow. But even if he doesn’t use it, he noted it might not matter. “It all ends up in Long Island Sound sooner or later,” he said.

 

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