Editorial: Kudos to Warwick for taking concerns about salt seriously

  • The highway department experimented with different snow removal methods involving less salt, or different kinds of salts and plows, but it concluded the results posed a driving hazard. Recorder FILE/Paul Franz

Saturday, February 03, 2018

We have to credit the people of Warwick for caring about their neighbors as much as they do. When someone complains that their local government’s actions may be harming them, the reaction too often is for officials to go into a defensive crouch.

But faced with complaints that road salt may have raised sodium levels in some household wells in the Warwick village center, town residents and officials are taking a close look at the concern — which presents conflicting imperatives: public highway safety in winter and public health.

Treating roads with salt and sand has been a staple of New England winters since the mid-20th century. How many of us are thankful for those brine-whitened state highways when heading to work or appointments during, or shortly after, a snowstorm — even if there may be a nagging voice in the back of our minds about the environmental effects so much salt may have over time?

A proposal from the town’s Salt in Drinking Water Committee to ban road salt in the village center has been rejected by the Warwick Selectboard, but the town will provide bottled water to some residents who feel their health is threatened by salt in their wells.

The advisory committee chairman, Ted Cady, said this was a good first step to address the public health concern, and we agree.

Interest in eliminating road salt in the village center came after testimony two weeks ago from residents whose wells have high sodium content. The committee contends the high levels are caused by road salt, but has no proof.

According to “Healthy Drinking Waters for Massachusetts,” a 2007 report by the UMass Extension, sodium in drinking water normally presents no health risks, as about 99 percent of daily salt intake is from food and about 1 percent is from water. However, elevated sodium in water is a health concern for those on salt-restricted diets, like someone with high blood pressure.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends sodium levels not exceed 20 milligrams per liter for individuals on low-salt diets.

Members of the Salt in Drinking Water Committee, which was formed as an advisory board to both the Selectboard and Highway Department, used a salometer to measure salt in water of 15 homes within the town center. Of those, nine samples were found to have sodium above the recommended level.

The highway department experimented with different snow removal methods involving less salt, or different kinds of salts and plows, but it concluded the results posed a driving hazard.

In addition to listening to its advisory committee, the Selectboard heard a presentation by Michael Smith, a road care technical training specialist. While Smith said he didn’t want to get involved in town politics, he did say “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.”

So, the Selectboard has voted, 2 to 1, to reject the petition for a no-sodium zone in the center of town, apparently accepting the road experts’ contention that using less salt would pose unacceptable safety risks and expense.

But, the Selectboard hasn’t given up yet.

For now, the Highway Department will continue to use magnesium chloride treated salt, which can cut down on sodium chloride use. But more importantly, the town will contact the Massachusetts Department of Transportation for help determining the cause of the wells’ high sodium levels. And in the meantime, the town will be buying that bottled water.

There was no end-date for the water deliveries, but the town will provide bottled water “at shortest until we demonstrate it’s not our fault” and “at longest until we come up with a better solution,” according to Town Administrator David Young.

That seems to mesh with the goal of the Salt in Drinking Water Committee, whose chairman said it’s incumbent on the town “to come up with alternatives to sodium chloride salt that would be as effective and less of a health threat.”

There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer here, but you have to admire the town for taking the health concerns of residents seriously, and declining to give up easily.