Baystate Roads speaker cautions about proposed Warwick salt ban

  • The Warwick Highway Department tried using just sand on town roads on Dec. 11, 2017. This photo, which Michael Smith referenced in his Tuesday presentation, shows Route 78 looking south from North Holden Road. Photo contributed by Larry Delaney

  • Michael Smith, a technical training specialist with Baystate Roads, speaks before 10 Warwick residents in Town Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 regarding the use of sand and salt to maintain roads. —Recorder Staff/Shelby Ashline

  • Michael Smith, a technical training specialist with Baystate Roads, speaks before 10 Warwick residents in Town Hall on Tuesday regarding the use of sand and salt to maintain roads. Recorder Staff/Shelby Ashline

Recorder Staff
Friday, January 26, 2018

WARWICK — Michael Smith, a technical training specialist with Baystate Roads, shed some light on Warwick’s road salt conundrum, and the answer may not be creating a no-salt zone.

Looking to protect Warwick’s well water, the Salt in Drinking Water Committee recently proposed instituting a road salt ban in the village center, but the Selectboard hesitated to approve the ban before hearing from Smith about the rationale behind sand and salt procedures.

Smith, who was the Heath highway superintendent from 1997 to 2015, said that while he didn’t want to get involved in town politics, he was concerned about not using any salt or a comparable melting agent.

“I think not using any melting agent on a hard surface road makes it very hard, if not impossible, to maintain it in a reasonably safe manner,” Smith said, speaking before 10 residents gathered in Town Hall on Tuesday.

The Warwick Highway Department has tested different methods of road care this winter season with varying degrees of success. In a slide presentation, Smith showed residents a December photo of roads treated with just sand, courtesy of Highway Superintendent Larry Delaney.

“If you asked me if that was reasonably safe, I’d say ‘No, it’s not,’” Smith said, gesturing to the snow and ice covered in sand. “I wouldn’t want this in my community, but that’s me.”

A probable source?

Interest in eliminating road salt in the center came after testimony from residents who believe high sodium levels in their well water led them to have abnormally high blood pressure. Committee Chairman Ted Cady said there’s “reasonable probability” that the sodium in the wells is coming from the road salt, though Town Coordinator David Young said there’s “no empirical evidence” regarding the sodium’s source.

Smith recommended the town find the source of the contamination with help from environmental scientists at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

However, Smith noted that the chief cause of well water contamination is the outdoor, uncovered storage of road salt, rather than its use. Young suspected the contamination could have come from poor storage decades ago, as the salt is now covered.

What’s wrong with sand?

Though the Salt in Drinking Water Committee hoped sand could be an environmentally friendly alternative to salt, Smith said sand has its shortcomings, too.

“Using too much salt hurts the environment; using too much sand hurts the environment,” he said. Smith provided examples from across the state where road sand had infiltrated the water, citing a 2005 study of Lake Wyola by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

According to the study, road sand washed into the lake during storms and accumulated in the North Cove, creating shallow water and fostering the growth of aquatic vegetation.

Plus, Smith added, the sand that remains on blacktopped roads in summer can create traction problems for motorists.


Eliminating the sand-salt mixture traditionally used in Warwick, Smith said, could cut down on the amount of salt needed.

“By having a mixed salt-sand combo, almost all communities use more material than all-salt communities,” he said. For example, Smith said Heath reduced its usage by nearly 50 percent by using salt without sand.

Smith also recommended pre-treated road salt that contains either a magnesium chloride liquid or a calcium chloride liquid. Because it works at colder temperatures and is more effective than dry rock salt, Smith said communities can reduce the overall amount of salt they use. The Selectboard approved testing a load of treated road salt on Jan. 2.

A need to be proactive

Smith was also concerned by the Salt in Drinking Water Committee’s proposal to allow the Selectboard, police chief or another Selectboard appointee to “declare an ice emergency and authorize the minimum amount of salt application for the center of town.” Pre-treating the roads with salt before an emergency, he said, decreases the amount of salt needed and prevents snow and ice from sticking to the road.

“It’s much less expensive and it’s much better for the environment if you’re getting out there before an event treating the roadways,” he said.

Smith said a highway department would need 17 tons of salt on one lane mile to remove an inch of ice, and that working from the top down in salt application is seven to 10 times more expensive than working from the bottom up.

What’s next?

Young anticipates the Selectboard will continue to discuss salt use. Though Smith’s presentation gave residents a lot to think about, how the town will move forward is unclear, with Cady explaining the issue has become an emotional one for those who have seen their health affected.

“Putting down more salt, even if it’s a more effective way, isn’t going to satisfy the issue,” Cady said.