Road salts: frequently asked questions
Is the Government of Canada banning the use of road salts?
Road safety is a top priority. Accordingly, the environmental risk management strategy for road salts that has been developed in cooperation with all interested stakeholders focuses on the development of best practices respecting storage, spreading and snow disposal while ensuring that road safety is not compromised.
What are the next steps for managing road salts?
Environment Canada worked with a group of stakeholders to come up with an effective risk management instrument to reduce the harm caused by road salts to the environment. A broad range of management actions was studied, including improved application technologies and better storage and handling techniques. On September 20, 2003, the resulting proposed Code of Practice for the Environmental Management of Road Salts was published for a 60-day consultation period. The final Code of Practice was published on April 3rd, 2004.
The Code of Practice recommends to those who use road salts to develop salt management plans that will improve their storage and application of road salts, and their disposal of snow that contains road salts, thereby protecting the environment while maintaining road safety. The Code of Practice builds upon much of the work that has already been done by the Transportation Association of Canada and a number of roadway authorities.
What are the environmental concerns associated with road salts?
The five-year comprehensive science assessment determined the release of road salts into the environment in very high amounts leads to environmental problems. About five million tonnes of road salts are used in Canada each year to mitigate ice and snow conditions on roads and to provide safer road conditions. However, the heavy use of road salts can lead to damage to vegetation, as is most obvious with roadside vegetation damaged by salt splash. They have also been associated with damage to organisms in soil, to birds and to other wildlife. Almost all chloride ions from road salts eventually find their way into waterways, whether by direct runoff into surface water or by moving through the soil and groundwater. In surface water, road salts can harm freshwater plants, fish and other organisms that are not adapted to living in saline waters.
Why are you using the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA 1999) to reduce the impact of road salts?
The science assessment of road salts was conducted under CEPA 1999. It concluded that road salts that contain inorganic chloride salts with or without ferrocyanide salts are entering the environment in such large amounts that they pose a risk to fish, lake and stream ecosystems, plants, animals and birds. For that reason, Environment Canada must develop measures to reduce these impacts. Therefore, it is using CEPA 1999, which provides a full range of options from voluntary actions to regulations, for managing the risks posed by such substances. In the case of road salts, Environment Canada worked with stakeholders to develop a Code of Practice.
The Code Of Practice
Does the Code apply to all road authorities?
- organizations that use more than 500 tonnes of road salts per year; and
- organizations that have vulnerable areas in their territories that could be potentially impacted by road salts.
Any organization that does not meet these criteria should consider implementing the best management practices that are relevant to its local conditions in order to protect the environment from negative impacts of road salts. Improved salt management may also result in economical benefits.
What are the Code's recommendations?
- the assessment of the organization's current winter maintenance practices against best management practices, such as those developed by the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC);
- the preparation of a salt management plan containing proposed actions to improve the organization's salt management;
- the implementation of the salt management plan;
- the presentation of annual reports on the progress achieved towards the implementation of the salt management plan to allow Environment Canada to assess the impact on the environment;
- the participation to the review of progress achieved by the Code of Practice.
What are the Code's milestones?
- Within six months of becoming subject to the Code: organizations meeting the qualifying criteria are asked to advise Environment Canada of their intent to develop a salt management plan by sending a Letter of Intent to the Chemicals Control Branch.
- Within the year following becoming subject to the Code: organizations complete their salt management plans (SMP).
- Every year thereafter: organizations report data about their salt management as outlined in Annex C of the Code to Environment Canada, by June 30th.
- Two years after becoming subject to the Code: organizations start to implement their SMP.
What information should be reported to Environment Canada?
The purpose of the annual report is to allow Environment Canada to follow-up on the actions undertaken by organizations through their salt management plan and to assess their impact on the environment. A form will be provided to assist organizations in reporting data about their salt use, their management practices for winter maintenance and their progress in implementing their salt management plan.
How will the Code be evaluated?
Five years after the publication of the Code in the Canada Gazette, an evaluation will be conducted to assess the progress achieved towards prevention and reduction of the negative impacts of road salts on the environment through the implementation of this Code. The review will consider the level of implementation of best management practices, the progress accomplished towards preventing or reducing the negative impacts of road salts and the results from the monitoring and measuring program.
What is Transport Canada's (TC) Role?
Provincial/territorial and municipal governments are primarily responsible for construction, operation and maintenance of Canadian highways.
Does Transport Canada have any road safety concerns about Canada's roadways as a result of the recommendation to add road salts to Schedule 1 of CEPA 1999?
Transport Canada recognizes the importance of road salts in protecting roadway safety. Road salts play a large role in keeping Canadian roads safe and efficient during winter. Winter maintenance activities, including the use of road salts, keep traffic moving and help to reduce injuries and loss of life.
At the same time, the department supports any action such as Environment Canada's proposal, which is aimed at protecting the environment and reducing the impact of roads salts on the environment.
Road salts, due to a variety of reasons, are the de-icer of choice and will continue to be used by road authorities. For that reason, the Risk Management process under CEPA 1999, through stakeholder consultation, recommended measures to reduce the impact of road salts on the environment without compromising road and driver safety.
Transport Canada was a partner in the stakeholder consultation process through its participation in the working group on road salts management.
What is Transport Canada's involvement with Intelligent Transportation Systems such as the Road Weather Information System (RWIS)?
Transport Canada is working with Environment Canada, and the provinces and territories to develop a national approach to implementing Road Weather Information System (RWIS) because it reduces the requirement for road salt use.
RWIS allows for alternative treatment of roads. The system uses weather and road data from automated weather reporting stations installed along the roadway which has special sensors embedded in and below the road, to assist weather forecasters in predicting icing conditions before they occur.
Road maintenance crews can use this information to decide if road treatment is necessary, the best time to treat, what chemicals or mixtures to use, and how much is required.
RWIS provides timely road information to weather forecasters and maintenance crews and can play an important role in enhancing safety, efficiency, and sustainability of Canada's transportation system.
How will road safety be maintained? Will there be a need for monitoring?
To address any concerns from provinces and municipalities regarding road safety, Environment Canada intends to monitor potential impacts on road safety using annual accident data collected by Transport Canada. This is important given the broad range of stakeholders who use road salt and the important role that road salt plays in keeping our roads safe.
Transport Canada considers that tracking changes of specific indicators is key towards a salt management strategy. Road safety is one of these indicators.
Transport Canada has been a partner in the stakeholder consultation process through its participation in the working group on road salts management.
What is Transport Canada's role regarding the storage of road salts that are shipped through Canadian port facilities?
At port facilities administered by Transport Canada, the storage of road salts is controlled by the department.
Transport Canada will conform with any new requirements that may arise related to the management of road salts.
Would Transport Canada be concerned if a road authority chose to ban using road salt?
Transport Canada recognizes the benefits of road salt as an effective tool contributing to safer winter driving conditions. Road authorities make their own decisions on the application and use of this material. Transport Canada does not regulate road maintenance nor does it specify what is to be used.
In light of the knowledge that the effective removal of ice and snow from pavements significantly reduces the number of collisions during winter conditions, Transport Canada would be concerned if road salt was banned by a roadway authority without implementing another effective de-icing agent or procedure.
Transport Canada knows that Environment Canada worked with stakeholders to assist them in making reasoned decisions within a carefully planned management framework and recognized the approach as the best way to achieve both departments' common objectives - improved environmental protection for Canadians while maintaining safety.
Road Weather Information Systems (RWIS)
What is the Road Weather Information System (RWIS)?
The information that's gathered will assist weather forecasters in predicting icing conditions before they occur. This data allows road maintainers to better track evolving road conditions and to intervene proactively, before road friction is lost.
What are the benefits by having this type of system?
Road maintenance crews can use this information to decide if road treatment is necessary, the best time to treat, what chemicals or mixtures to use, and how much is required. This will result in reduced road salt usage, thus protecting the environment while at the same time providing significant savings in costs to road maintainers. This information can also contribute to reducing traffic congestion, thereby reducing the levels of greenhouse gases released in the atmosphere by idling cars.
By providing timely road information to weather forecasters and maintenance crews, RWIS will play an important role in enhancing safety, efficiency, and sustainability of Canada's transportation system. Safer roads save lives. The Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) will assist the provinces with the proposed national RWIS network. The MSC will provide core data services such as assuring data quality and building a national RWIS data base for the transportation sector. These are essential elements of a national integrated network to ensure all Canadians enjoy the benefits of modern road weather technologies.
What is federal government doing to promote this program?
Since 1999, Transport Canada has encouraged the provinces and territories to work together to create a cross-Canada RWIS network. To that end, a technical working group was established to develop a proposal for the development and implementation of a network of high quality road weather systems that would be installed on the National Highway System. The group included members from Transport Canada, Environment Canada and the provinces and territories.
The federal government is now negotiating with the provinces and territories to finalize contribution and data-sharing agreements that will provide the financial support for these systems.
When can Canadians expect to see progress towards implementing this network?
In the coming winters, more provinces will invest in RWIS while other provinces expand their networks. Significant re-engineering of the way road treatment is done will require significant re-tooling of the equipment and re-training of the maintenance supervisors and staff.
Work is advancing on all these fronts. The result will be felt gradually. The goal is for winter driving to become less treacherous, winter traffic to move more efficiently and salt to be used more appropriately so there will be less damage to the environment and transportation infrastructure and vehicles.
Once contribution agreements to provide the financial support for these systems are in place, construction of the environmental sensor sites along the National Highway System can begin. The negotiations, construction and activation are expected to take up to three years.
Provinces and territories should be contacted directly for more information on road treatment and on implementation of RWIS.
Human and environmental health
Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999), what is the difference between harm to the environment and harm to human health?
Organisms in the environment have different susceptibility to different substances, including salts. Exposure of these organisms to levels well below what may be considered safe for humans may result in direct or indirect harmful effects. As a result, a substance which is not considered harmful to human health as defined by CEPA 1999 can be determined to be harmful to the environment.
Road salts are not harmful to human health. There should be no concern about handling road salts. The principal problem for humans is that too high a level of salt spoils the taste of drinking water.
How are road salts not harmful to human health?
There is no demonstrated link between the use of road salts and an adverse human health effect. Humans are exposed to road salts principally through well water that can be affected by road salts. Road salts can affect the taste of roadside well waters, sometimes to the point where the water is not drinkable, when sodium and chloride levels become sufficiently high. Sodium and chloride are not known to cause harm to humans; in fact, the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines are based on taste. Water becomes undrinkable at salt levels well below those that might be of concern for human health.
Other substances in road salts (including ferrocyanide and certain metals) are only present at trace levels. It has also been suggested that increased sodium intake might contribute to hypertension in humans, but the evidence is considered inconclusive and drinking water usually only contributes a very small fraction of people's total intake, most of which comes from food.
What kinds of measures will be adopted to reduce the impact of road salts on the environment?
Environment Canada worked with stakeholders to develop a Code of Practice that will reduce the negative impacts of road salts on the environment and allow road authorities to maintain road safety in winter. This working group included representatives from other federal departments, other levels of government, environmental organizations, the salt industry, the Transportation Association of Canada and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
The Code of Practice recommends to those who use road salts to develop management plans that will improve their storage and application of road salts, and their disposal of snow that contains road salt thereby protecting the environment while maintaining road safety. The Code of Practice builds upon much of the work that has already been done by the Transportation Association of Canada and a number of roadway authorities.
Best management practices for general use could include the use of better salt application technologies such as electronic spreader controllers, anti-icing, pre-wetting and road weather information systems which prevent ice formation and lead to reduced use of salt and actually improve road safety.
What steps have already been taken by road authorities to improve the management of road salts?
Considerable effort is being made by road authorities at all levels to improve the management of road salts. Some jurisdictions are well advanced in introducing technologies such as electronic spreader controllers, anti-icing, pre-wetting and road weather information systems, whereas others are just beginning to investigate these practices. The assessment of road salts and initiatives by the Transportation Association of Canada have heightened the interest in better management of road salts and have been the incentive for greater action across Canada. Case studies documenting the resultant benefits of these practices are available.
How much do you think we could cut back on our use of road salts?
New technologies for roadway applications have shown significant reductions of as much as 20 percent or more while improving road safety. However, the amount used in a season depends on the weather and severity of the winter. Improving management practices at salt storage facilities and snow disposal sites has also proven to be effective to significantly reduce local and regional environmental impact without affecting road safety at all.
Why did the Government of Canada assess road salts?
Road salts are one of the 25 substances added to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act's Priority Substances List (CEPA PSL) in December 1995. It was added at the recommendation of the Ministers' Expert Advisory Panel which included members from various governments and stakeholder groups. The Panel's report noted:
"The Panel recognized the benefits associated with the use of road salts. However, these substances have negative effects on the environment. Large volumes are released through road salting, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. There is evidence of adverse local environmental effects to groundwater and to plant and animal life following exposure. Algae and benthic fauna have been shown to be particularly sensitive to changes in chloride ion concentrations, resulting in a reduction of fish populations. The Panel recognizes that there has been considerable progress in upgrading storage facilities. However, given the widespread exposure to these substances, and their release in large volumes into the Canadian environment, the Panel believes that an assessment is needed to determine their ecological effects."
What does it mean to be placed on the Priority Substances List (PSL)?
Substances that are on the PSL are a priority for assessment. Their presence on the PSL does not restrict any activity relating to the substance. If, following the assessment, it is determined that a substance is indeed harmful to the environment, then it is considered for development of management and control actions.
What environmental assessment process was used for road salts?
Environment Canada and Health Canada are responsible for the environmental and health assessment of priority substances. For the environmental assessment of road salts, an Environmental Resource Group of government and non-government experts was formed to prepare supporting documentation providing a detailed review of data and presenting analyses pertinent to the risk assessment. Following external science reviews, an Assessment Report summarizing the scientific conclusions and recommendations was released in August 2000 for a 60-day public comment period. Comments were considered, and the Ministers of Environment and Health recommended that road salts be added to Schedule 1 under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 and that management options to reduce their impact on the environment be developed.
If there are environmental concerns, why has Environment Canada not act earlier to control road salts?
While many different reports of damage from road salts have been identified from various jurisdictions, it was important to come up with an overview of potential concerns. Large quantities of information were reviewed and analyzed to characterize the use of road salts, the concentrations in the environment in Canada, and the broad range of effects that can be associated with this environmental exposure. Road salts are important for roadway safety and it was essential to understand where, when, and how road salts can pose a risk in order to make responsible management decisions.
How open is Environment Canada's risk assessment process?
Environment Canada engages public input at various stages of its risk assessment and management activities. Road salts were added to the Priority Substances List on the recommendation of a stakeholder expert advisory panel. The assessment was led by Environment Canada with the active participation of scientists from federal and provincial governments, industry, and academia. Updates on the assessment were sent regularly to individuals and organizations who had indicated an interest in the assessment. Updates were posted on Environment Canada's Green Lane Web site. Presentations on the assessment process were made regularly to public works groups and other association meetings in Canada. The assessment report and proposed conclusions were released in August 2000 for a formal public comment period. Comments were considered and the final assessment report was published in December 2001.
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