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Researchers to monitor road salt concentration in Pennsylvania streams and water supplies

Gene J. Puskar

With the winter season underway, it’s only a matter of time before salt trucks get deployed to treat snowy roads across western Pennsylvania. But while deicing the roads is key to keeping driving conditions safe, how much rock salt washes into our waterways?

Five volunteers in Westmoreland, Indiana, and Armstrong counties will try to answer that this winter. They’re teaming up with Penn State University and the Izaak Walton League to monitor the presence of road salt in local waterways.

The Izaak Walton League has been studying chloride concentrations in waterways across the United States since 2017. The group estimates that 20 million tons of salt is used in the United States every year. That’s more than 120 pounds for every American.

A study from the University of Toledo found the usage of deicing salt has tripled in the last 45 years.

After roads are treated, excess salt washes off into ditches and streams and eventually ends up in rivers and other waterways. That salt can corrode water pipes and make streams toxic for fish and other wildlife, according to Justin Mansberger, a Master Watershed program coordinator with Penn State Extension. Mansberger is coordinating the western Pennsylvania data this winter.

Excessive salt concentrations are responsible for killing bugs, fish, mollusks, clams and other aquatic life. Road salt can also wash into our drinking water supply.

“Our private drinking water might come directly from our rivers and streams… [so] a lot of times this salt can end up getting into our drinking water as well… and end up increasing our intake,” of salt, said Mansberger.

High salt content in drinking water can cause health issues for people on low-sodium diets. It also can taste unpleasant.

This will be the first time the program collects data from Westmoreland, Indiana and Armstrong counties. The volunteers will test local rivers and streams four times this winter.

Carrie Lucci, a volunteer in Westmoreland County, said she has already completed her first test. Volunteers are to collect a baseline sample before the season’s first big snow to compare readings later in the season.

“It’s very easy to do … it takes about ten minutes,” Lucci said. After soaking a test strip in a cup full of river or stream water, volunteers upload their reading results to an app.

Freshwater streams should have low concentrations of salt, if any at all. Concentrations between 1 and 100 parts per million (ppm) are considered naturally occurring. Readings above 230 ppm are considered toxic for aquatic life, according to Penn State.

The data collected this winter will paint a clearer picture of how much rock salt exists in waterways across the state, according to Mansberger. He and Lucci hope the information can drive a push toward alternatives with less environmental impact, like salt brine sprays.

“No one is advocating that we stop salting the roads. It’s important for safety and driving,” said Lucci. “But if we could just change a few things or tweak a few things about what we’re doing to also make this safe for the environment.”

Interested volunteers can still request a free test kit for the season at the Izaak Walton League website.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.