Canada eyes low-sodium highways

by Matthew Sylvain

OTTAWA, Ont. – The federal government is considering listing road salt as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, a move that would change how the country’s roadways are maintained in winter months.

In August, Environment Canada released a draft report that included research showing road salt is harmful to plants and animals.

As part two of a three-stage process, the report was released for 60 days, a mandatory period meant to give the public a chance to comment on a proposed change to legislation.

The report detailed the preliminary research stage, which was conducted by a panel that included scientists, environmentalists, and health and government officials. The research panel concluded that, “road salts are toxic to the environment, especially to streams, small lake ecosystems and to ground water because of their widespread use.”

It also noted salt is spread most heavily in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces.

The public consultation phase ended in October.

“We received many comments and we have been looking at those comments seeing if there are changes that need to be made to the draft report,” says Environment Canada spokesman Mark Colpitts.

The final stage sees Environment Canada now weighing what the public had to say.

The case will then go to the Minister of the Environment, David Anderson, who has final word on whether its recommendations become law.

If road salt were listed as toxic under the Act, then using it would mean breaking the law.

Under changes to the Act, Ottawa has two years to develop ways to control the toxin’s use, and another year and a half to implement those controls.

The Canadian Trucking Alliance was one group that told Environment Canada what it thought of the proposal. In a submission the group wrote it, “recognizes the need to adopt measures to control or eliminate the release into the environment of substances harmful to human, plant and animal life, provided such measures are based on sound scientific principles, and where such measures do not in themselves pose threats to human safety.”

The alliance warns, “the designation of road salt as (a) toxic substance may lead to lowering standards of winter road maintenance essential to the safety of our members and the travelling public at large.”

The Canada Safety Council (CSC) is equally nervous about the possibility of legislating salt off the country’s roads. In a press release it wrote, “such federal legislation expands the liability of provincial and municipal governments. At the same time it … may deprive them of their only cost-effective means to protect themselves and the drivers on their roads.”

The CSC’s president, Emile Therien, puts it more bluntly.

“We’re all for the environment, but we’re talking here about Canadian winters … If we’re going to be a mobile society, the economics of this country are as important in the winter as they are in the summer.”

He adds, “our concern is the tradeoff. Public health and safety are the big issues – and the economy.”

There are alternative “de-icing substances,” says Therien, but he adds none are as cheap and effective as salt.

Colpitts, who explains road salt is identical to table salt, says Environment Canada realizes the implications. “I emphasize this is the recommended approach, and we have not yet finalized our recommendation to the minister,” he adds.

According to Environment Canada’s own documents, a final decision was supposed to be made in December.

“We’re working on it,” says Colpitts, “but I don’t want to give a precise date … But this cannot go on indefinitely.” n


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