The Rapidian

Residents raise concern over chemicals concentrated in snow piles

Grand Rapids citizens, city officials and scientists discuss contaminates in city snow piles and their effect on the stormwater system and watershed.
Snow piled near the corner of Coit Avenue and Hastings Street

Snow piled near the corner of Coit Avenue and Hastings Street /John Wiegand

Snow Disposal and Stormwater Resources

Information regarding snow disposal guidelines and stormwater can be found at the following locations:

MDEQ Water Resources Snow Disposal Guidance 

City of Grand Rapids Stormwater Master Plan

15 to the River Stormwater Campaign

Debris uncovered in melting snow piles.

Debris uncovered in melting snow piles. /John Wiegand

Snow piles stored at Lincoln Park

Snow piles stored at Lincoln Park /John Wiegand

As winter begins to loosen its grip and the large amount of snow piles around the city begin to melt, some residents are troubled over the high concentration of chemicals, namely the high quantities of road salt and debris in them and their effect on the local watershed.

"The snow piles in parking lots and along our streets nearly guarantees that we will be dumping large amounts of pollutants directly into our watershed once the snow melts," says Chris Reader, a citizen of Grand Rapids. "We are stockpiling pollutants to flush into our spring watershed."

Dr. Alan Steinman, Director of the Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI), echoes these concerns.

"We have studied snowpacks and whether it is the municipal department of works or MDOT who are piling this snow, we find that [snow piles] concentrate chemicals. But the biggest ecological impact associated with this is the amount of salt that is contained in these snowpacks. When they melt they really increase the amount of salinity in our waterways to a point where it is potentially toxic to aquatic invertebrates."

The city has made an effort to reduce the impact of road salt and other debris on the stormwater system by actively cleaning the areas around stormwater catch basins and limiting the amount of salt used to clear snow and ice from city roadways.

"We've cut back on the amount of salt we've been using over the years," says James Hurt, Director of Public Services for Grand Rapids. "We have used quite a bit of sand and salt mixture to one, reducing the amount of salt and two, when it is that cold you can't get any traction on ice because the salt isn't activating. We are trying to minimize how much salt is getting on the street and ultimately into our stormwater system."

According to the West Michigan Environmental Action Council's stormwater advocacy campaign, 15 to the River, it takes between 15 and 30 minutes for contaminated stormwater to reach the Grand River through the municipal stormwater system.

Hurt does not see a strong danger from the melting snow.

"If we took [the snow] off the curbs and parking lots, then most of them don't have a lot of salt in them."

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Water Resource Division Snow Disposal Guidance document states that, "Contaminants are often present in snow cleared from streets and parking lots, including de-icing agents such as salt and sand, as well as automobile exhaust and litter (for example, cigarette butts and other detritus that you may see accumulating in roadways and parking lots). Additional potential contaminants include heavy metals, petroleum products, nutrients and organic debris such as leaves and grass, bacteria and pesticides."

Based on a separate study conducted by AWRI in Muskegon, Steinman recommends that snow mounds be created in areas where they can be held in place and the salt captured, like retention ponds, rather than allowing it to make its way through the stormwater system and into the watershed.

Hurt says the city does not haul enough snow to make retention ponds a viable solution.

"Understand that we don't haul a lot of snow. If we were hauling tons of snow, I could see doing something [like building retention ponds] but there is not a need for it," says Hurt. "When we do snow removal it is typically from the downtown area, the curbs, some of the bridges and sidewalk areas."

Snow gathered from municipal areas is currently stored at the Domtar Disposal Site located on Butterworth Street. The location offers a secure area to store excess snow from around the city and is monitored by the MDEQ according to Jim Arsulowicz, Parks, Cemeteries and Forestry Manager. The site is also open from early April through mid-December as a yard waste disposal site for area residents.

The city also uses parking lots in designated city parks like Lincoln Park to store snow gathered from various municipal buildings.

The MDEQ Snow Disposal Guidelines suggest, "Avoid sites that may present risks for human exposure, like playgrounds and ballparks."

"You know I have not heard of that. They are actually in the parking lot right now, which is pretty much closed and it is not in any of the sidewalks," replied Arsulowicz when asked about the MDEQ's suggestions. "If it does impede any travel, any pedestrians or if it becomes a problem, we will move it to our Domtar site."

According to Arsulowicz, the snow brought in from around city buildings to Lincoln Park was filtered of garbage and debris prior to it being hauled to the park. The city also takes measures to mitigate the effect of chemicals and debris on the water system as the snow begins to thaw.

"As [the snowpack] melts we have buffer zones to make sure that it doesn't leech into any water system," says Arsulowicz. "We monitor it as it melts and if we see any type of debris or contamination, we take care of it immediately."

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