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Research into chloride in Boston water systems with Journalism Class and myRWA

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Semi-Fictional Challenge to the JR368 Data Visualization Class at Emerson College, Spring 2015

Is there too much salt in the streams and rivers around Boston? Is it impairing aquatic life? The municipal government says it's fine. Residents say there's so much road salt that it's killing their lawn and impairing stream life. Community groups are advocating for testing. What's your strategy to find out the story? You find myRWA online and contact Patrick Herron. Turns out there is a community already engaged in water quality monitoring and they have looked at various measuring options and found a coqui sensor that is low cost, fairly easy and engages people around the data collection effort. You, as the journalist, jump on board that effort in order to tell the story of what's going. The device hasn't been used before to monitor water quality.

Here is some research you have found regarding the threats chloride poses to freshwater systems: MA Appendix H pp. 9-11 about chloride regulations, River chloride trends in snow-affected urban watersheds, Increased salinization of water in the Northeastern US

How do you begin to research this scenario? List your group members & write-up your preliminary research below in at least 500 words.

Group 1: Don, Catherine, Patrick

  • Look for road salt data in the Boston area
  • Find community groups that care about water quality
  • Where does drinking water come from in MA?
  • Where are some stockpiles of salt in Greater Boston?

Group 2: Jess, Matt, Connor

Our research summary.

Who would we interview?

  • Companies that mine, sell salt
  • MassDOT officials who determine “salt-free zones” and where salt is distributed
  • Boston Public Works officials
  • Boston Water and Sewer Commission officials (eg. Henry F. Vitale)
  • Water quality officials
  • Watershed associations
  • Residents who live in proximity to salt storage areas
  • Scientists from local higher education entities that specialize in Environmental and Ecosystem Studies
  • As a side note: an expert on carbon emissions that could comment on the sheer amount of CO2 that is being released into our atmosphere just to salt the roads

For background information, our group first found this article, which turned out to be a gold mine of information in regards to where road salt comes from, where it is stored, how it is distributed and how the overuse of salt can lead to significant environmental issues.

The piece also linked to several journals/reports that were completed/sponsored by government agencies from the U.S. and Canada that showed how massive amounts of salt that is absorbed into snowmelt can affect river (or pretty much any waterway) ecosystems.

We learned last year, “the Massachusetts Department of Transportation used over 585k tons of road salt, along with 27k tons of sand and 1.57M gallons of liquid de-icers to battle slippery highway conditions,” according to the article. Salt was imported from many countries, but was brought in from Cargill, Granite State Minerals and Morton Salt. Those companies submit bids to MassDOT to determine who will provide the incredible amount of salt that is needed.

Based on this article and the sources it identifies, the business of salting our roadways, and even shipping and storing the salt locally, is wrapped up in a corporate atmosphere and treated like any other typical business deal. Notably, this isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing, but it just shows how the business of keeping our roadways safe can turn into an auction. According to Michael Dennehy, interim commissioner of Boston Public Works, there is approximately 80 thousand tons of snow stored in 8 different locations across Boston that are at the ready and constantly replenished.

Something we still want to know is besides the main storage area in Chelsea, where are the the other many caches of salt stored?

According to this report from the U.S. Geological Survey, levels of chloride, a component of salt, are elevated in many urban streams and groundwater across the northern U.S., according to a new government study. Chloride levels above the recommended federal criteria set to protect aquatic life were found in more than 40 percent of urban streams tested. The study was released today by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Elevated chloride can inhibit plant growth, impair reproduction, and reduce the diversity of organisms in streams. The effect of chloride on drinking-water wells was lower. Scientists found chloride levels greater than federal standards set for human consumption in fewer than 2 percent of drinking-water wells sampled in the USGS study. “Safe transportation is a top priority of state and local officials when they use road salt. And clearly salt is an effective deicer that prevents accidents, saves lives, and reduces property losses,” said Matthew C. Larsen, USGS Associate Director for Water. “These findings are not surprising, but rather remind us of the unintended consequences that salt use for deicing may have on our waters. Transportation officials continue to implement innovative alternatives that reduce salt use without compromising safety.” This comprehensive study examines chloride concentrations in the northern U.S. covering parts of 19 States, including 1,329 wells and 100 streams.

This report produced by the Canadian government explains how road salts are used in Canada as de-icing and anti-icing chemicals for winter road maintenance, with some use as summer dust suppressants. A comprehensive five-year scientific assessment by Environment Canada determined that in sufficient concentrations, road salts pose a risk to plants, animals and the aquatic environment (Assessment Report - Road Salts). A Risk Management Strategy for Road Salts was subsequently developed to outline the measures that Environment Canada proposes in order to manage the risks associated with road salts. Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, the Government of Canada published a Code of Practice for the Environmental Management of Road Salts on April 3, 2004. The Code is designed to help municipalities and other road authorities better manage their use of road salts in a way that reduces their impacts on the environment while maintaining road safety.

Group 3: Chelsea Tremblay, Amanda Gomez, Terrena Scannell


"There's a lot of stuff in this snow that if I isolated it and threw it in the river, you'd have me arrested." -- John Lipscomb, member of environmental group Riverkeeper.

Record-breaking snowfall and a limited budget for snow removal has led public officials to consider dumping snow into the Boston Harbor. This practice was common before 1990 and the Boston clean-up initiative. Interestingly enough, other cities have already dumped snow into either the ocean or local rivers, including Salem, Marblehead, and Lowell, even though state laws prohibit such practices because plowed snow carries a lot of salt, oils, metals, and other contaminants.

To approach this story, we searched for data on Boston Harbor’s water quality before 1990 to discover the effect of dumping snow into the Harbor. Luckily, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority has maintained records of water quality changes since 1987 for their Boston Harbor Project. Their raw data is not available online so it would be important to contact them for the specific information we may need. For a second source, we consulted the Department of Interior’s report on the Boston Harbor which had data dating back to 1967. We can hopefully take these studies and compare their findings to the Harbor’s present quality.

In January, the Eastern Salt Company’s Chelsea Terminal had a 40-foot tall pile of road salt, according to this article (meanwhile, we are dealing with 20-foot tall snow piles). According to the same article, 585,000 tons of road salt was used last winter in Massachusetts-- 80,000 tons were used in Boston alone. Michael Dennehy, an employee at Public Works, was quoted saying “It’s mined from the earth, but you wouldn’t want to put this stuff on your fries.” Road salt isn’t processed to remove inedible chemicals and is treated with anti-caking chemicals, which raises concern for its presence in water that houses numerous wildlife plants and animals, and is a popular site for outdoor sports. According to this Boston Globe article, Massachusetts has recently adopted a new method of pairing a liquid de-icing agent with salt in the face of this winter’s developing salt shortage. Though many don’t find this threatening, Canada went so far as to label road salt as a toxin in 2004 and placed strict guidelines on its use.

According to this article, “an estimated 40 percent of the country’s urban streams have chloride levels that exceed safe guidelines for aquatic life, largely because of road salt.”

After completing our preliminary research, we would like to talk to different environmental specialists and advocates to get various opinions on the idea of dumping snow into the Harbor. For example, Bob Chant, a professor of physical oceanography and estuarine dynamics at Rutgers University said in an interview with Al Jazeera that dumping snow into the Boston Harbor wouldn’t be that detrimental because the Harbor already has 10 million tons of salt. It would be interesting to speak to him about this, and also someone who can potentially counter this argument--possibly someone at GoLocalProv. It would also be important to speak with locals and find how much salt they are contributing to the ground that goes unrecorded every year.

Philip, Shannon, Jennifer:

Video footage of Water Conductivity Testing:

We tested 3 samples of water. One sample of water from a snow bank in the backyard of a Allston, MA home. The water was pretty clean, an audible sound could be heard when the Coqui was placed into the sample, the noise was of a low frequency. The second sample was from a snow bank on Boylston Street. The water was not as clean, no sound came from the Coqui as the frequency was too high for us to hear with the current conductor in the Coqui. The third and final sample we tested was from Fellsmere Pond near Malden, MA. The water was not as clean as the Allston snow bank, however an audible sound with a high frequency could be heard when the Coqui was dropped in the sample. The results make sense due to the locations the samples were found; the dirtiest sample was taken from a dirty snow bank on a busy city street (thus resulting in high conductivity), the two cleaner samples were taken from a top a frozen pond in Malden, MA and a clean snow bank in Allston, MA (thus resulting in lower conductivity). The two cleaner samples were much farther away from the road salt that has been spread on the roads relentlessly this severe winter; therefore making them certain to have less salt.

The source of drinking water for the Greater Boston area is the Quabbin Reservoir. As for road salt, one main supplier for Boston and surrounding areas according to a WBUR article is the Eastern Salt Company located in Chelsea. 20% of their salt is shipped from Ireland and Mexico. The remaining majority comes mostly from a mine in a dusty, dry and windy region near Iquique, Chile. The mined salt is loaded onto trucks and driven 25 miles to the coast where it is shipped off.

The Department of Transportation is spending $70.65 per ton on road salt this year, compared to $51.95 last year, according to WCVB Boston. According to the Boston Globe, 53,000 tons of salt have been spread on Boston roads since the beginning of the snow season. According to a report by the Department of Transportation, salt storage facilities are usually located at highway maintenance yards as well as at other intermediate points along the highway. According to Chemical Solutions, some of Boston’s road salt stockpiles are located on the waterfront since 1834. The official Massachusetts policy for salt use is - salt applied at less than 300 lb/lane-mi on state highways.

According to the American Water Works Association in June 2014, Boston has the highest quality tap water in the nation (MassLive). Boston's tap water is considered "soft water" because of its low concentration of minerals like calcium. There are several groups in the Greater Boston area that maintain our water quality, including the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, Clean Charles River Initiative and the Mystic River Watershed Association.

People to Interview: - Official of the Quabbin Reservoir, how do they make the water drinkable? - Eastern Salt Company, how does the salt affect the drinking water? - American Water Works Association, what qualities do they look for when testing water?

Evan, Anthony, Kassandra

Road Salt Data: Road Salt in Boston has been in high demand this winter due to the severity of snow that has hit the city and region. Even last year, the state of Massachusetts used 585,000 tons of road salt, and the state also spent $118 million on ice and snow removal. This year, the cost of road salt for the state increased 36 percent in comparison to last year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Despite the high increase in prices, the state still spends significantly less than other states. For example, Ohio saw an average price increase of 86 percent this year.

The state has gone about using alternative methods to decrease the use of road salt and the negative impact on the environment. They now use brine as a pre-treatment method, which is inexpensive and works relatively well, that also reduces the use of road salt by 15 to 30 percent according to Morton Salt. Also known as anti-icing, brine has a smaller negative impact on the environment.

The city gets all of its road salt from the Eastern Salt Company’s Chelsea Terminal, which gets its salt primarily from Chile, but also from Mexico, Egypt, Ireland and Australia. The city brings in about 80 tons of road salt each year from eight different factories.

Where the Salt Comes from: MassDot uses road salt from salt stockpiles from Cargill in Maine, Granite State Minerals in New Hampshire, Eastern Salt in Chelsea, and Morton Salt.

Groups/Organizations in the community:

The Environmental League of Boston has done a lot of work with the land and species as well as reducing the use of toxic chemicals. We would get in contact with the people in charge of these projects and discuss with them the issue of high amounts of salt in the water and see what they are doing about it.

Environment Massachusetts focuses on the Clean Water Act and working to stop the pollution of water in Mass. They focus not only on rivers and lakes but the ocean surrounding Mass as well. I think talking to them and conducting an interview to see what they are doing about salt and to hear/learn more about the Clean Water Act.

US Environmental Protection Agency works on issues like toxic preventions, land cleanup, waste, and water sources.

Who spreads salt?

[The state of Massachusetts employs contractors](null) to plow snow, deploy salt, and other deicing methods. The amount of contractors employed depends on the need in any of the six districts. While this may be good for our state’s economy, the salting method is harmful to our environment. For every new contractor, it’s almost a direct negative impact on the environment.

Would would you interview in a story?

  • Potential candidates for this depend on the angle of the story, but good people to get on the phones would be:

  • Any of the staff listed under CONTACT for The Environmental League of Massachusetts

  • Ben Hellerstein - Field Associate for Environment Massachusetts

  • EPA Main office Boston location

  • Commuting residents

  • Walking residents
  • Suburb/city residents
  • Contractors who spread ice
  • Aquatic life
  • New England Aquarium Press inquiries 617-973-5213

Our Findings: Our hypothesis on the conductivity of these three water samples was correct in guessing that dirtier water would omit a higher frequency. We learned that the coqui test was measuring how much "stuff" was in the way, obstructing the circuit we were trying to make. Our first sample from New Hampshire looked the dirtiest, and after testing, only gave a "chirp," proving that there actually was a lot of obstruction. The second sample from Somerville, MA was fairly clean giving off a lower sound because the connection was only minimally obstructed. The third sample, Boylston Station in Boston, looked a little cloudy and also gave off a sound with a frequency between samples 1 and 2.

Paige Solomon, Cody Bowman, Ryan Smythe Preliminary Research of Road Salt


  • According to this article, around 22 million tons of salt is used on roads across the U.S. annually
  • Boston’s salt comes from Eastern Salt Company’s Chelsea Terminal (mines salt from Mexico, Egypt, Ireland, Australia, and Chile)-Boston’s salt came from Chile
  • In this article by, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, around 585,000 tons of road salt were used for 2014’s snowfall (Boston received around 58.6 inches of snow from 2013-2014)
  • So far this year, Boston has received around 84 inches of snow
  • Costs of road salt have risen from $50 per ton to $70.65 per ton according to this article.
  • Sodium and chloride ions from the road salt runoff into streams, rivers, lakes, and groundwater
  • As areas in the U.S. become more developed, the risk of salt entering bodies of water increases. (Example from the Mohawk River’s salinity increased by 130 percent from 1952 to 1998 as a result of the development of a nearby area)
  • Chloride ions, as a result of road salt, exceed the “recommended federal criteria” in streams (more so during the winter months).
  • Road salt can runoff into the groundwater causing saltier drinking water (happens more during the winter months)
  • Higher levels of salt in bodies of water can result in a reduction of oxygen in the lower layers of water.
  • Road salt dries out and kills trees and plants
  • 1941, New Hampshire was the first state to use salt to dissolve ice and snow
  • In bodies of water with increased chloride, there is a smaller margin of survival for frogs and salamanders
  • Before 1997, Boston dumped snow into the harbor until the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection prohibited it.
  • According to this Boston Globe article, Boston is melting snow with a couple of snow-melting machines from Boston Port Authority (can melt 150 tons of snow per hour), and they are dumping snow in snow farms.
  • One snow farm received 1,400 truckloads or 25,000 cubic yards of snow
  • Boston’s drinking water comes from the Quabbin and the Wachusetts Reservoirs in Western Massachusetts
  • Salt used to be used as a chemical weapon to destroy fields and farms in Roman times and before

Players Involved

  • Eastern Salt Company’s Chelsea Terminal provides the salt to Boston
  • Boston’s Public Works Department in charge of de-icing and plowing the streets
  • Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection, Boston Water and Sewer Commission
  • Charles River Watershed Association-keeps the Charles River clean
  • The Boston Harbor Association

Possible Interviews

  • Paul Lamb-Manager of Eastern Salt Company’s Chelsea Terminal
  • Drivers of snow plows/salt trucks
  • Robert Zimmerman Jr.-Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association
  • Vivien Li (President) or Julie Wormser (Executive Director)-Boston Harbor Association

Our Test

Unsurprisingly, the cleanest snow was significantly less conductive than the two dirtier samples. The sound our coqui gave off was within human hearing range with the smaller capacitor, while both dirtier samples needed the larger capacitor. The most interesting part of that was while the darkest colored snow gave off about the same level of sound as the seemingly cleaner snow. Our thoughts were that either the color wasn't a very good indicator of how conductive snow samples are, or they were both so dirty that the coqui wasn't fine-tuned enough to be able to differentiate the conductivity.