CG Column: Athens wisely addresses costly road salt contamination, but city could do more
By CG Commentary Editor Lane Robbins
The City of Athens recently replaced its aging road salt bin, and just in the nick of time.
Road salt contamination is a public health concern and an environmental issue. Contamination of drinking water can produce an unpleasant taste and contribute to heart disease. Road salt spills can also destroy plant life.
Is salt contamination one of the most important health and environmental issues? No — at least not in Athens. But it is a significant and costly problem.
Athens recently replaced its road salt storage facility after finding runoff from the bin seeping into groundwater. The new salt bin holds 2,000 tons of salt, compared to the old bin’s 450-ton capacity.
Some estimates say it cost taxpayers $250,000 to upgrade. Athens City Councilwoman Nancy Bain, D-3rd Ward, believes the cost was probably more than that. She introduced the October ordinance upgrading the storage facility, which is located near the City Service Garage on West State Street.
“Salt management costs in this area easily exceed one million dollars over the period 1985-2011,” Bain said. “We invested quite a little money in this because we were a nuisance to adjoining property owners and the areas both downstream and down water table from us.”
Aside from unpleasant tasting water, the National Research Council reports that high amounts of salt in drinking water can contribute to hypertension, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
This is more problematic for those already at risk, of course, and salty food is the primary culprit (not water). Water and other beverages account for only 1 to 2 percent of the average person’s daily salt intake. But why increase the risk?
The Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum level of salt in water is 250 milligrams per liter and its recommendation is that sodium concentrations not exceed 20 milligrams per liter. The salty water discovered in Athens had about 4 milligrams per liter, but that was not in the immediate vicinity of the aquifer.
The contamination is due to small salt spills from city workers clearing roads. The salt contamination is so severe in some places in Athens that grass no longer grows, Bain said.
“You might consider that the finished drinking water results … are from a mixture of pumping efforts often moved from a mile upstream from where our salt was a potential nuisance,” Bain said.
If Athens had waited any longer to upgrade the salt bin, things could have gotten worse. It’s good the city addressed the problem now, but more could still be done.
Road crews should try to minimize salt spills and immediately clean up spills in salt-sensitive areas.
The next step Athens needs to take is to minimize the impact of road salt by mixing it with sand.
Even though steps have been taken, more can and should be done.