Give us the data

A state task force is studying the effects of road salt usage on communities in the Adirondack Park. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

Last month, state lawmakers decided that New Yorkers don’t really need to know all the details of a study underway about the use of road salt in the Adirondack Park.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in December signed into law a measure to create a task force that will examine road salt contamination for three years. It calls on representatives of the state departments of Transportation, Environmental Conservation, Health and the Adirondack Park Agency to review possible alternatives in the state’s quest to maintain safe roadways.

“Local lawmakers and environmental groups have been pushing the idea since last year. The law creates a task force and directs state transportation, public health and environmental officials all to help with a three-year study that will test new ways to manage roads in the winter. Whether the law will do what they hope remains to be seen,” according to a story published Dec. 3 by the Adirondack Explorer. “Because of the way salt is dumped and spread, much of it runs off into nearby streams, lakes and groundwater. Salt helps beat back snow and ice, but its chemical properties also corrode metal and harm plants and animals. In a high enough dose, salt is dangerous to human health — it raises blood pressure and leads to heart attacks, strokes and kidney disease.

“This year, an investigation by the Adirondack Explorer detailed how salt damaged property and contaminated drinking water, as well as how state officials have for years avoided responsibility for causing such damage,” the article reported. “The law creates a 14-member group to hold public hearings, investigate the damage already done by road salt and come up with new guidelines for highway departments, including the state Department of Transportation. The bill expects the task force to spend three years on the job, wrapping up its work by the end of 2024. It also directs state highway officials to vary how much salt they apply and how often, and then environmental regulators to monitor nearby waters. The bill would also require the group to recommend changes to how road workers clear roads each winter in the Adirondacks.”

But now, the state Legislature passed a bill to ensure not as much information from this study is made available to members of the public.

“The original law focused on creating a task force to study the runoff from state Department of Transportation salt trucks and required the department to turn over 20 years of data that, in turn, could become public. In a memo accompanying his signature in December, the governor worried the study ignored other sources of salt runoff and could endanger drivers with mandates that didn’t take public safety into account. A bill to quietly amend the law was introduced in early January and signed by the governor in mid-February,” the Adirondack Explorer reported in a story published March 2. “The amended law addresses the governor’s concerns but also adds language that protects DOT from making public information that could be used against it in court. Now, transportation officials don’t have to turn over as many records to the task force about salt use and the information they do provide about how much salt they use ‘shall not be redisclosed’ without the consent of department officials.”

The Adirondack Explorer quoted Brittany Christenson, executive director of AdkAction, as saying the amended law “all boils down to liability.” If something sensitive could be used in court against the state, authorities now have the ability to keep it under wraps.

One concern raised about releasing information about the study is that other governmental entities use salt in the Adirondack Park. People may conclude that the state DOT is the only agency responsible for the damage.

That local governments in the Adirondack Park are using road salt is a valid point. But the solution is to make this a part of the three-year study so that people can read this. Withholding vital information about an in-depth investigation into road salt serves no one’s interest — with the exception of the state, which can be evasive to as to avoid litigation.

Like the Adirondack Explorer, the Watertown Daily Times has reported extensively on problems caused by the use of road salt in Northern New York. We’ve argued on this page that state officials have been far too slow in accepting responsibility for contamination to wells in the town of Orleans.

Throwing more obstacles in our way does not help us understand what’s going on and how we can address the problem. It merely allows the state to continue denying that it has seriously hampered the lives of numerous people in the north country.

By offering sufficient context about who’s using road salt and how much, state officials can overcome their concern of having the finger pointed solely at them. But if their primary goal is to keep themselves out of court, that excuse falls flat.

State legislators need to go back and revise this law. They must ensure that members of the public have access to all vital facts about the road salt study in a timely manner. Self-government demands that we take advantage of the information available to make the best decisions about our society — but this information first needs to be available.

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