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New N.H. certification program aims to reduce road salt use during winter storms

Last modified: 7/10/2013 10:19:05 AM
Starting this fall, New Hampshire snow-removal companies will be able to gain partial immunity to lawsuits by going through a voluntary training and certification program for applying road salt before and during winter storms.

State officials hope that with better training, private companies will spread less salt to melt ice in parking lots and the like. That would have environmental benefits, they said, since excess road salt leads to runoff and toxic levels of chloride in nearby streams and lakes.

“The idea behind the bill was, if we could get more people trained . . . in these techniques, then we could achieve more efficient salt use, so we’re not wasting any salt,” said Eric Williams, supervisor of the Watershed Assistance Section at the Department of Environmental Services. “We’ve felt all along that we could reduce salt significantly and still maintain the same level of service, the same level of safety, that we had by making more efficient use of salt.”

Similar certification programs have been proposed four times since 2010, but four years in a row the legislation has stalled in the House. The latest bill was retained this spring by a House committee for more work.

But Senate budget writers then inserted language creating the program into House Bill 2, the trailer bill that accompanies the biennial state budget. Gov. Maggie Hassan signed the budget – and with it, the salt applicator certification program – into law last week.

Rep. John O’Connor, a Derry Republican who sponsored this year’s bill, said supporters decided not to wait until next year because they were worried a delay “would send an adverse signal” to federal agencies including the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The issue, he said, is Interstate 93.

The state is in the process of widening the interstate, from four to eight lanes, in southern New Hampshire. But federal approval for the project included a condition that the high levels of chloride in four nearby streams be reduced.

The state DOT and municipal road crews have already reduced their use of road salt. But, Williams said, in some areas private salt applicators are responsible for up to half of the chloride runoff into nearby watersheds.

If the overall chloride levels aren’t brought under control, he and O’Connor said, the state could be forced to take other action, such as scaling back the I-93 project to six lanes instead of eight to reduce the road surface that would require salting during winter storms.

“If we don’t reduce the salt content, then they’re going to mandate it,” O’Connor said.

Hence the new program, which starting Sept. 26 will allow private companies to get annual certification from DES if they complete a half-day “Green SnowPro” course offered by the University of New Hampshire’s Technology Transfer Center.

The UNH training course, which has been offered since 2011, includes instruction in pre-treating roads with brine and other techniques that can reduce road salt use during winter storms.

It’s voluntary, but certification comes with an important benefit. Absent “gross negligence,” a certified company and any property owner who hires it will be immune from lawsuits claiming damage due to snow and ice that wasn’t removed, so long as the company follows best practices and keeps proper records.

“Under current state law, the state and the municipalities are granted limited liability if they have winter road maintenance policies and they follow them. . . . We thought that there was a need for a similar protection for private sector applicators if we were going to achieve salt reduction,” Williams said.

That will save companies money, since they’ll be using less salt. And in the process, officials said, it will reduce chloride runoff.

Williams said there are 40 watersheds across the state where chloride loads are at toxic levels for aquatic life. Almost all of the excess chloride, he said, comes from road salt.

“There are clearly impairments in many other watersheds around the state,” Williams said. “Wherever you see higher density of development, you’re going to see higher salt loading.”

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)


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