by BayKeeper Tom Kutcher
The answer is NOT “dump it in the Bay”. In fact, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have nearly identical snow disposal policies that require towns and cities to exhaust all other options before dumping snow into the Bay or other bodies of water, because pollutants, such as salt and sand, and oil, gas and metals from our cars mix with and stick to the snow.
Freshly fallen, pristine snow is beautiful and unpolluted. But not long into any snowfall, the snow gradually begins to turn brown and black, as it mixes with melting chemicals, litter, and vehicle fluids. Consider how filthy the snow gets on Route 95 or in the shopping mall parking lot. That’s a great reminder of how dirty our roads actually are. Dumping this snow into the water is basically equivalent to dumping those pollutants directly into our rivers and Bay.
In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, towns and cities are required to have a snow disposal plan that identifies and prioritizes disposal sites by least environmental impact. For example, large open spaces, such as dirt parking lots, located away from surface waters, where snow melt can be captured by catch basins or gradually filtered into the soil as it melts are least impactful. Areas adjacent to surface waters, such as wetlands, rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs, and the Bay itself, are to be avoided.
Of course, there can be extraordinary circumstances, such as when public safety is at risk, and when all less impactful options planned have been exhausted. In these cases, state agencies may exercise discretion and not enforce against a community for dumping snow into the water without a pollution discharge permit. The states’ snow disposal policies allow for the disposal of snow that is not obviously contaminated with pollutants into certain waterbodies if municipalities contact the agency and avoid environmentally sensitive areas, such as wetlands, ponds, and areas prone to shoreline erosion.