I-TEAM: Is road salt harming drinking water?

The ABC11 I-Team did some digging to find out what happens when salt seeps into our waterways.
March 5, 2014 3:43:51 PM PST
It's common knowledge that the rock salt dropped by the DOT during recent ice and snow events can damage cars, but what about the environment?

The ABC11 I-Team did some digging to find out what happens when that salt seeps into our waterways, and the possible effects on drinking water.

It's been years since Triangle roadways have seen this much rock salt. The City of Raleigh has spread 4,100 tons of salt this year on city streets. That is five times as much as the last three years combined.

It is used because it melts ice and snow, but it also rusts and corrodes car paint, and helps to crate potholes in the pavement.

The salt could also be making local water supplies saltier.

Mark Senior manages Raleigh's Stormwater Division. He's heard the reports of cities in the snow-covered Northeast with rising salt levels in their local waterways.

"We probably have an increase in salinity in the water around here as well," said Senior. "Mostly, when it rains, it washes off because that stuff travels downstream."

Sand and salt mix that drains off the streets of Raleigh ultimately flows into the Neuse River, which supplies water to Lenoir County.

Durham's rock salt runoff all ends up in Raleigh's primary water source -- Falls Lake.

"All the salt and everything that's applied to the roads in Durham area and state roads in wake county all ends up in Falls Lake," said Senior.

Unlike cities with more snow and more salt use this winter, Raleigh water managers have not noticed increases in chloride levels, or any noticeable effects on wildlife.

Senior is concerned about long-term effects, but those concerns often come second to the more immediate challenge of deicing local roads.

"It's a balancing act. We know that the salt is going to get washed in our streams and we really don't want it there, but it's a balance between that and public safety," said Senior. "If we don't use it, people are going to get injured when we have these types of winter events."

The city says it does its best to lessen the impact of the salt by using more brine because it requires less salt to be effective. They also calibrate the spreaders on trucks to minimize the amount.

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