BOSTON — Imagine the East Coast’s largest cities mixing a brew of salt, motor oil, trash and grocery carts and dumping it into rivers and harbors.
It’s allowed in emergency situations, and some officials staring at massive snow mountains in densely populated areas of the winter-walloped Northeast say that time is now, even as others warn dumping snow into water comes with big problems.
“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,” said John Lipscomb of the New York-based environmental group Riverkeeper.
Snow from the East Coast’s insistent winter is being plowed into banks that are narrowing roads and highway ramps like hardening arteries, blocking driver sight lines and forcing schoolchildren to break paths like cattle as they walk down buried sidewalks. In a normal winter, the snow melts on a good day or is carted off to designated dumps where it eventually filters its pollutants through the earth or is treated before ending up in sewers.
This is not a normal winter. Many East Coast cities, including Boston, Hartford, Conn., and New York are on their way to setting seasonal snowfall records, and the extra snow means extra road salt and human refuse that gets swept up by plows.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t directly regulate dumping snow but recommends against dumping it into water. It also urges state and local governments to include snow disposal restrictions in stormwater management plans. Some states and municipalities restrict dumping snow into waterways out of fear of harming aquatic life and polluting drinking water. Massachusetts is one of them.
Even so, state Sen. Jack Hart has called for a “Boston snow party,” with snow being poured into Boston Harbor like tea was long ago. Despite the state’s long battle to clean up the once notoriously polluted nook of Massachusetts Bay, he’s getting support from unlikely allies.
Bruce Berman of the group Save the Harbor, Save the Bay said that he normally wouldn’t support such dumping, but that high snowbanks are making it dangerous just to move around Boston, and that the deep and active harbor can handle it.
“When there’s a compelling reason — and believe me, these storms have given us a compelling reason — to snow dump, I support it,” Berman said.
But Boston has yet to seek to dump its snow into water. It has found room for nearly 71 inches of snow this year, about 50 inches more than it usually gets by this time of year, according to the National Weather Service. New York has seen about 58 inches; typically it has had 12 by now.
Gregg Wood with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said the state does not grant waivers for snow dumping in bodies of water.
Because snow removal operations contain pollutants associated with winter road maintenance, there are several regulations governing how municipalities or private operators can dump snow. Among those regulations are: Dumps cannot be located on wetlands, they must be 500 feet from the normal high-water mark of any great pond, they must be no closer than 100 feet to a tributary, they can be no closer than 20 feet to the maximum high-tide line, and they must place a silt barrier along the edge of the snow dump.
Dana Wardwell, public works director for the city of Bangor, said the city’s snow dump is on Route 1A just across the city line into Hampden near the marina. He couldn’t remember a time when the city snow dump could not handle Bangor’s snowfall.
Once streets and sidewalks are plowed, snow removal follows, and it’s a highly coordinated process. Downtown is the top priority, followed by the city’s major corridors and, finally, residential roads. Wardwell said a crew of about three dozen public works employees moves snow between snowstorms.
The most heavily developed section of Portland, Maine, is on a peninsula, and its main snow depository is packed full after about 52 inches of snow this winter. City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said it has enough nearby alternatives to avoid dumping it into nearby Casco Bay, though it would have considered it a few years ago.
“People started discussing the environmental consequences of putting the snow in Casco Bay,” she said. “It just didn’t make sense.”
In Philadelphia, excess snow is piled onto a city lot because state environmental rules prohibit dumping in water, said city spokesman Mark McDonald. Last year, a snow-clearing crew was caught dumping snow into the Schuylkill River and was ordered to stop after someone posted a picture of it online.
The hazards of too much snow mixing with a lot of humanity were well evidenced by a blizzard that paralyzed New York after Christmas. Many pedestrians gave up trying to use the sidewalks, instead walking down the middle of partially plowed streets. Uncollected trash piled up for days.
Ed Coletta of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection cautioned that besides the junk that ends up in snow piles — everything from common trash to grocery carts — it can freeze in large chunks and threaten boat traffic.
The pollutants are released when the snow melts, anyway, but snow dumping sites, quaintly called “snow farms” in Boston, lessen the damage, Coletta said.
Ideally, they’re placed in upland areas, away from sensitive environments, so the pollutants can be filtered through the soil before they reach the ocean or drinking water, he said.
Still, Coletta said his department has allowed snow dumping in water when it’s clearly the best option.
“This is an unusual year; when there’s an emergency, or an issue of public safety, the policy can be flexible,” he said.
Some people don’t bother to ask. In Lawrence, Mass., Mayor William Lantigua caught a private contractor dumping truckloads of snow into the Merrimack River late Sunday and early Monday. Police still are investigating the possible illegal dumping, and no charges have been filed.
According to the police report, the contractor said he “knew it was wrong, but stated, ‘It’s just too much snow. Where else can I put it?”’
That question hit Waterbury, Conn., public works director John P. Lawlor Jr. after the lot he uses for dumping filled up for the first time ever.
“We could not squeeze another mouthful of snow there,” he said.
Lawlor figured he would never be allowed to dump in the water, so he brought in a snow-melting machine from the Ohio company Snow Dragon, and it’s clearing the downtown area over the next few days. Other cities, including Minneapolis, use the company’s machines.
New York also trucks its snow to melters, which empty the water into the sewer system, then to treatment plants, where many pollutants are removed.
Snow Dragon’s most popular machine costs $230,000 and measures about 27 feet long, 8 feet wide, and more than 8 feet high, said Jennifer Binney, director of sales and marketing. It melts 30 tons of snow an hour and discharges it, debris-free, into the storm drains, she said.
As well as it works, Binney noted, “it will never replace hauling.”
That leaves large bodies of water as alluring dumping spots when the snow seems too high.
Expediency is no excuse to dump snow into water, said Anthony Iarrapino, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group. The pollution problems are so severe that it should be considered only if there’s really no other option.
Still, he conceded, “if the snow continues as it is, you may be reaching that tipping point.”
BDN writer Eric Russell, Associated Press writers David Caruso in New York and Randy Pennell in Philadelphia contributed to this report.