August 4, 2021
A win-win-win for winter maintenance

A win-win-win for winter maintenance

New Hampshire’s certification model benefits the environment, contractors and the public


Back in the mid-2000s, the state of New Hampshire began the process of expanding the number of lanes for the highway between its capital, Concord, and the ski and lake tourism areas in the north.

The need was clear: Traffic was increasing and causing regular traffic jams, particularly on Friday and Sunday evenings. But planners hit a roadblock.

“Early in the process, they started monitoring streams in that area,” explained Ted Diers, administrator of the Watershed Management Bureau for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. “They found there were four streams, smallish rivers really, that had very high chloride levels.”

The discovery put the brakes on the project.

“So what that ended up doing was putting a strain on the permitting for the project,” said Diers. “By adding more lanes you were going to be adding more salt, and those water bodies already violated what we call water quality standards. So this became a major issue.”

More studies were undertaken, and the results were surprising.

“One of the things we learned was that a lot of our salt problems were actually coming during the summer,” said Diers. “That was kind of terrifying because it means all the salt applied in the winter actually comes back up into the streams through ground water during the summer. That’s when the rivers are lowest and fish are at vulnerable life stages. And the other major thing we learned was where the salt comes from. Our studies showed only about 10 per cent of the salt was coming from the interstate itself. About 25 or 30 per cent was coming from municipal roads, and the rest of it came from private parking lots and roadways.”

This information complicated the issue. Lowering salt use couldn’t be accomplished simply by mandating changes for the public employees plowing and de-icing the highways and public roadways. It was going to have to include major changes from private sector winter maintenance professionals.

It was relatively easy to start making changes on the public sector side.

“Our department of transportation started to use brine, automatic vehicle location, and more weather sensors embedded in the roads and all of those kinds of things so they had better information to do their work,” said Diers. “At the same time they were also funding some projects in municipalities to improve their equipment, and they began moving to brines and underbody plows and other things that helped them do a better job and use less salt.”

But the question remained: How could the state encourage private contractors to use less salt?

The state launched the Green SnowPro training and certification program to provide contractors with the latest information on winter maintenance best practices, including equipment and material innovations like liquids and live edge plows, as well as the science behind de-icing and anti-icing.

During its first couple of years, the program saw limited participation and received solid feedback. But it was hard to get contractors to invest the time and money.

“What we heard over and over and over from the contractors is what prevented them from reducing their salt was really the liability risk,” said Diers. “There is great research out there that shows on average, winter maintenance professionals apply somewhere between 20 to 50 per cent more salt than is needed to actually protect public safety. But the problem is, and what people were really worried about, was that they would reduce salt and implement best practices into their companies, and they would just get sued anyway. Even if the work they did was by the book to protect public safety.”

So public officials in New Hampshire went back to the drawing board. They needed a way to address the liability issue. Soon, legislators in the state drew up legislation to provide limited liability protection to winter maintenance professionals certified through the Green SnowPro program.

“Now when you have the Green SnowPro Certification, which requires you to go through training, report your salt use on an annual basis, and to maintain continuing education credits over time, then you are afforded limited liability relief,” said Diers. “Basically, you can’t be sued for a slip and fall unless you were negligent. So it puts a higher onus on the person that is suing you.”

The legislation was soon enacted, providing winter maintenance professionals in New Hampshire with a massive incentive to get certified and to implement best practices to reduce salt use.

Diers said more than 2,000 people have been certified. One participant told him he saved more than $40,000 in salt costs in one year alone.

Diers hopes the state will continue to provide incentives for private contractors to reduce salt use.

“I’d like to be able to have a grant or a loan program to be able to help small businesses purchase better equipment for snow and ice removal,” Diers said. “Either low interest loans or some sort of loan forgiveness program. And that’s where I’m headed now, trying to figure out if there’s some way we can get funding to do something like that to keep things moving in the right direction.”

Ecological impacts of salt

In Canada, the negative impacts of salt on the environment are also being felt.

Tim Van Seters, senior manager, Sustainable Technologies for the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), said salt is a big issue in the Greater Toronto Area.

“Road salts have widespread impacts on water quality, freshwater wildlife, soils and vegetation,” said Van Seters. “The chloride component in road salt, usually sodium chloride, is toxic to freshwater wildlife at levels above 120 milligrams a litre, which is a very low concentration. We actually only start to taste salt in our drinking water at levels of 250 milligrams a litre. So it just shows you how low that concentration is. Aquatic life is very sensitive to even low concentrations of sodium chloride.”

Van Seters has been working with the TRCA since the early 2000s, and over that time, he has seen salt concentrations rise to very concerning levels.

“Just as we depend on air, the right makeup of oxygen, freshwater species like fish, frogs, mussels, salamanders and zooplankton, need water with the right concentration of chloride to survive,” said Van Seters. “They’ve adapted to low levels of chloride in their habitats, and when you increase those levels it begins to disrupt their basic functions such as regulating water content, which we call osmoregulation, and their breathing as well.”

Bill Thompson, manager of Integrated Watershed Management at Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA), has seen the same thing in regions around Lake Simcoe in Ontario. He says chloride levels in the lake have risen by 500 per cent since data was first collected in 1971.

“The native species we have in our lakes and rivers have evolved over millennia to live in freshwater,” said Thompson. “So when we add chloride we turn, in some situations, those fresh water systems into brackish or even salt water systems. That puts those species into an environment they haven’t evolved to live in. So the things we see, for example, is the eggs of fish and frogs, which tend to have almost a leathery surface, those eggs can get hardened by the saltier water, and when the eggs harden it means there is a greater chance that the offspring won’t be able to hatch.”

Freshwater fish also face serious issues in saltier water.

bowl of cucamelons Tim Van Seters examines Toronto’s Humber River.
“If you think about fish, for example, they obviously breathe through gills, but the way that they breath actually, is it relies on their internal environment being saltier than their external environment, and that allows oxygen to pass through the gills,” explained Thompson. “As the external environment gets saltier it gets harder and harder for them to breathe. And in more extreme situations you start to see fish dying in saltier situations.”

Claire Oswald is an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental studies and a member of the Urban Water Research Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ont. Oswald studies how salt gets from roads and parking lots to waterways.

“Everything eventually ends up in a waterway, it just takes different routes to get there, depending on where it’s put down,” said Oswald. “Sometimes it moves really quickly. As soon as the snow melts, it moves right to a stream. ... But there is also road salt that unfortunately gets into the subsurface. It gets down into soil water and ground water and it takes a longer time. But it does eventually end up in our streams and lakes.”

Oswald added, “The concern is when it’s getting into smaller water bodies where there just isn’t enough water to dilute it. If you’re thinking about a little head water stream, those little streams can’t really handle it. There’s not a lot of volume. So if you have a parking lot that pipes into a stormwater pond that goes into a stream, when you get a big pulse of winter meltwater going through there and all of a sudden, the stream is shooting above the Canadian water quality guidelines and it’s putting the ecosystem at risk. Eventually that salt is going to move downstream and it’s going to get to the lake and be more diluted, but our headwater streams are super important for maintaining the health of our freshwater ecosystems.”

Van Seters, Thompson and Oswald are part of the Sustainable Technologies Evaluation Program (STEP) salt working group. All three support the implementation of a program similar to the New Hampshire model in Canada as a means to reduce salt use.

“We have really come to realize that people in the industry get it,” said Thompson. “They understand there is an environmental impact to what they are doing. But they also have, what I think, are very reasonable and rational concerns about lawsuits and being able to survive in a very litigious environment. We hear contractors say they are putting more salt down because their client demands it. From the environmental side, we’re very keen on the New Hampshire model because we see that as potentially being able to take that fear out of the equation. To allow contractors and their clients the ability to make the right decisions. I think it would be a huge improvement in terms of how salt is being managed.”
Tim Van Seters agreed.

“We can’t get rid of salt,” said Van Seters. “Salt is necessary to make our roads safe, so it’s not something that we’re advocating be gotten rid of. However, there are various different best practices that have been well-tried across the world really, across all of the cold climate regions, that are very promising and that can significantly reduce the amount of salt that is applied.

“New Hampshire’s approach is an interesting one because a lot of the overapplication of salt is related to the fears around liability and fear of slip and fall lawsuits. STEP is advocating for a similar kind of program here where contractors would be indemnified by the province if they are certified, but in addition, that certification program has to have an auditing component to ensure that the best practices are being applied on the ground as well.”

Construction law expert Rob Kennaley of Kennaley Construction Law in Simcoe Ont. said implementing a New Hampshire Style model in Canada would have a significant impact.

“The New Hampshire model incentivizes the efficient and environmental application of salt by offering certified contractors protection against litigation,” said Kennaley. “Stated plainly, if you are certified under the model, the courts presume that you acted reasonably and responsibly and will not hold you liable unless it can be demonstrated that you were grossly negligent or that you acted in reckless disregard of the hazard in question. Similar protections are offered to those who hire such professionals. The impact of such a program is huge.”

Kennaley added, “Owners and property managers will naturally want to hire certified contractors to take advantage of the liability shield, insurers may price non-certified contractors out of the market-place and the public will eventually come to understand that in most cases only gross-negligence will give rise to a slip and fall damages claim.  Once in place it should, over time, result in a fewer number of claims, in lesser amounts being paid out in claims and in reduced premiums for winter maintenance contractors. It is also, of course, extremely beneficial to, and important for, the environment.”

On top of the environmental and cost saving benefits, reducing salt use mitigates the negative impacts salt has on infrastructure like roads, bridges, buildings, as well as vehicles. It’s what Thompson calls the “triple bottom line.”

“[STEP] is currently working on a number of case studies with contractors who have adopted various best practices,” said Thompson. “We are hoping to demonstrate a triple bottom line cost benefit for the contractor to show that if you adopt best practices like treated salt or liquids, or detailed site maps with prescriptions for various parts of the property, contractors can reduce the amount of salt they use, which lowers the cost in purchasing the salt, mitigates damage to infrastructure and better protects the environment. And this is all while keeping the property as safe as it can be.”

What are winter maintenance best practices?

So what are best practices for winter maintenance and salt reduction, and how do contractors learn them?

Lee Gould is the executive director of the Smart About Salt Council, based in Ontario, Canada. Smart About Salt provides winter maintenance training and certification, and has partnered with New Hampshire’s GreenSnow Pro Program to provide online training.

“There is little doubt that if you use best practices, you can save money, improve safety and do something good for the environment and infrastructure,” said Gould. “It really is a win-win proposition.”

The Smart about Salt training program is focused on best practices including the five R’s of salt management: (right material, right time, right amount, the right places and how to retain work); liquids; mechanical snow removal including the equipment innovations; calibration; application rates; site assessment; and salt science.

Gould said in general, the public doesn’t understand “the multiplicity of the challenges that winter maintenance professionals face.” And he hopes that will change.

bowl of cucamelons The over application of salt is often tied to the fear of slip and fall lawsuits, says Tim Van Seters.
“It is a complex issue,” said Gould. “It isn’t just about waking up in the wee morning hours, getting a cup of Tim Hortons and driving a plow around a parking lot. It’s about putting down the right product at the right time, investing in equipment. Running a business. Dealing with slip and fall claims. Hiring staff. I think people think it’s not a problem, we can just throw down salt. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

And that challenging job has become even more difficult due to rising insurance costs, largely driven by slip and fall lawsuits, most of which never make it to trial.

“When there is a slip and fall claim, they are rarely adjudicated,” said Gould. “Most of these things don’t make it past discovery at best. So the contractor, in many instances I suspect, did the right thing, they were professionals who did their job and protected public safety on the property, but the actuaries for the insurance company have figured out it’s cheaper to throw $50,000 at a claimant to make it go away, rather than spend money on lawyers to adjudicate it.”

The result is a culture of fear in the winter maintenance profession that makes it difficult to convince practitioners to reduce the amount of salt they put down.

However, Gould, along with STEP members Thompson, Oswald and Van Seters, are optimistic legislative solutions, similar to what New Hampshire has put in place, could make a positive impact.

“I think that this issue of road salting and freshwater salinization, would really benefit from everyone trying to strengthen their relationships,” said Oswald. “Practitioners, scientists and policy makers need to work together… I think there is a lot of room for us all to work together to take the scientific understanding that we have, and take the practical thinking on the ground, and put them together to come up with some innovative ways to reduce road salt.”

And down in New Hampshire, Diers is hoping to see other states, as well as Canadian provinces, build off the work they have done.

“I always tell people that we don’t know everything about this,” said Diers. “We really don’t. We are learning just like everyone else. We have one little piece of the puzzle. But we are really depending on other people in Ontario, and New York,or our friends in Minnesota and Wisconsin, we are depending on everyone to be innovative to figure things out. It’s really going to take learning from each other to crack this nut.”