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Industry group joins environmentalists asking Ontario for new laws to reduce road salt

An industry group representing contractors who salt icy roads and parking lots is joining environmentalists in asking for new regulations to protect ecosystems and waterways from salinated runoff.

Landscape Ontario, which represents about 1,200 snow and ice management contractors, says its members’ desire to use less salt is stymied by legislation that holds contractors liable for injuries such as slips and falls.

Joe Salemi, Landscape Ontario’s executive director who lives in Hamilton, says many of the same contractors who work in horticulture in the summer, planting trees, shrubs and gardens, do ice and snow contracting in the winter, laying salt they know negatively impacts plants and the environment. 

“It’s an awful situation where we just want to be good stewards but in the winter, that all just goes out the window,” Salemi told CBC Hamilton this week. “It comes down to liability.”

He said that the way current legislation is written, any liability for ice and snow-related injury claims falls on the snow removal contractor.

“Invariably what happens is the snow and ice contractor uses way more salt than they need to because they are fearful, or the property manager puts pressure on them to use more salt than they need to,” Salemi said.

“Some contractors put down so much salt. Often the salt itself becomes a hazard.”

Two people shake hands in front of other people and some heavy machinery.
Joe Salemi, Landscape Ontario’s executive director, left, shakes hands with Premier Doug Ford on Oct. 24, 2023. The group was at Queen’s Park to lobby for better regulation and reduced liability for snow and ice clearing contractors. (Landscape Ontario/Aisha Shaikh)

His group would like the legislation changed so contractors and property managers share the liability, but is also proposing the creation of an oversight body for the industry that would require contractors to have training and accreditation, including related to salt use.

Ideally, he says, the contractors who became accredited could then be held harmless from liability claims, something that would have the added benefit of keeping more contractors in an industry struggling with dwindling numbers due to increased slip and fall claims and insurance costs.

“Oversalting puts our natural environment at risk, and it will continue unless legislative changes are made to regulate the industry and address the liability concerns,” states a document circulated by Landscape Ontario entitled A Call for Change. “Oversalting will harm our freshwater systems, drinking water, vegetation, and wildlife.”

New Ontario coalition calls for ‘urgent action’

The organization’s calls parallel those by environmental groups asking the province to protect Ontario’s fresh water from increasing salt runoff and “chloride pollution.”

A newly-formed group, the Ontario Salt Pollution Coalition, wrote to Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister Andrea Khanjin on March 22 — World Water Day — asking the government to “undertake urgent action” to create water quality standards, regulation and enforcement to protect the Great Lakes and the rivers that feed into them.

“Road salts represent the largest source of chloride inputs into Ontario waters,” states the letter.

“Ontario makes up less than 11 per cent of Canada’s landmass, but it is the biggest user of road salts in the nation. Your Ministry’s scientific data shows conclusively that salt has been and continues to be a threat to aquatic ecosystems which is increasing in magnitude over time. 

“For example, data from the open-source Ontario Data Catalogue [shows] chloride levels in rivers and streams in urban areas often exceeds Canadian Water Quality Guideline of 120 milligrams per litre… and are increasing,” it adds. “Drinking water intakes, even in large lakes like Lake Ontario, have reached 30 mg/l chloride and are increasing.”

The group, which includes Water Watchers, Environmental Defence and the Ontario Rivers Alliance, wants the province to put together a broad-based working group to draft policy on the issue.

“Salty runoff into freshwater systems degrades water quality, endangers drinking water sources, jeopardizes aquatic life, and damages ecosystems,” states the letter.

“Elevated chloride levels can be toxic to fish, insects, and amphibians, disrupting the delicate balance of our waterways. Furthermore, salt corrodes infrastructure from bridges to plumbing systems, incurring costly repairs.”

Elevated salt levels in local creeks

Increased salt content is also a risk to drinking water, says Robert Edmondson, chair of the Halton-Hamilton Source Protection Committee, which is tasked with forming plans to protect the region’s drinking water sources.

He said salt content has continued to increase in recent years in both waterways and wells.

“It’s a function of how much salt has been going on the roads,” he said, noting he is aware of the liability issues contractors face. 

He said the smaller creeks near Burlington’s border with Hamilton, such as Spencer Creek and Grindstone Creek, as well as Tuck Creek in Burlington, are all dealing with elevated salt levels.

“It can impact people who have intolerance to salt,” he said, noting many people are medically required to undertake low-salt diets, but it’s hard to avoid if it’s in the water. “Of course, it also affects the taste of the water you’re drinking.”

Province says it’s ‘committed’ to protecting waterways

Gary Wheeler, spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, said in an email the province is “committed” to “encouraging the sensible use and storage of snow and de-icing products” and protecting waterways.

Wheeler said Ontario has invested $1.4M since 2018 to address chloride monitoring and excess road salt.

He said the ministry works to promote operator certification and road salt alternatives. Wheeler also pointed to provincial guidance which recommends:

  • Only using as much salt as you need to do the job.
  • Use equipment that controls how fast the salt is distributed, so it doesn’t just match the vehicle’s speed.
  • Only salt main thoroughfares and critical sections of other roadways, such as inclines, intersections, crosswalks.

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