By CHELSEY POLLOCK
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- As state and town salt trucks hit the roads this winter, town officials say efforts are being made to rein in salt use, especially in sensitive watersheds.
But reducing the overall amount of salt on the roads is difficult, officials say, when the substance is still the best way to battle dangerous road conditions.
“Our problem as municipalities — and the state, too — is that until there’s an alternative for salt, we still have to maintain road conditions for public safety,” said Salem Public Works Director Rick Russell. “We’re all up against that.”
But in watershed areas along the expansion route of Interstate 93, state officials say towns have been asked to use less salt.
In particular, the state has requested reduced salt use in the Beaver Brook Watershed in Derry, Dinsmore Brook Watershed in Windham and Policy Brook Watershed in Salem, said state DOT Water Quality Program Manager Mark Hemmerlein.
About a quarter of Salem’s town-maintained roads fall into the Policy Brook Watershed area, where Russell said he focuses the efforts of salt trucks equipped with new technology.
Over the last four years, Salem has purchased five ground speed control censors that adjust the amount of salt a truck puts down based on how fast the vehicle is moving. But outfitting the town’s remaining 12 salt trucks will take time, he said, as the equipment costs about $6,500 a piece.
Further, Russell said he has stepped up education efforts with town employees and contracted drivers. In Derry, where more than two-thirds of town roads fall into the watershed, Superintendent of Highway Operations Alan Cote said he is following similar practices.
“We’re being more cognizant of making sure all our salters are well calibrated, and we’re spending a lot more time educating our employees and getting them to understand that more isn’t always better,” Cote said. “They’re professionals and they have to use their judgment on a regular basis because storms are all different.”
At the state level, Peter Stamnas, DOT project manager for the I-93 project, said supervisors have outlined “best management practices” for salt reduction. In recent seasons, Stamnas said those practices have reduced salt use by 20 percent in some areas.
“All of our focus is on maximizing efficiencies of maintenance operations without lowering our level of service,” Stamnas said.
Those efforts include pre-wetting salt so that it sticks better to roadways and turning to more advanced weather predicting software, he said. In the future, Stamnas said more sophisticated plows and salt spreaders will continue to make a difference.
But in towns like Salem, where Russell said that more than half of all pavement is in private parking lots, commercial contractors play a significant role in the amount of salt going into watersheds.
“It’s complicated because there’s just as much asphalt in commercial and industrial parking lots in Salem as on our town roads,” he said. “It’s not just on the town and state, but it’s getting the private sector to do their part.”
A salt certification bill held over from last year’s legislative session would institute a certification system for those applying salt statewide that would keep a closer eye on who is putting salt down on those private lots.
Further, the bill would introduce limited liability for businesses who might otherwise over-salt to protect against being sued for an accidental fall on their property.
And Hemmerlein said the bill could make a difference.
“The private sector is a very large chunk of the salt load, so a small change on their part means a very large change overall,” he said.
Russell said driver education is also essential because road conditions will change if further salt reductions are mandated down the line.
“It’s not something that’s going to be fixed by just educating the public and private sectors about salt application,” Russell said.“It’s a way of life that the motoring public is going to have to come to bear with.” “Reducing salt and reducing speed are two things that are going to have to work in combination, and that could take years to evolve,” he said.
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