Last week, the New York Times ran a splashy article on Manhattan’s new Spring Street Salt Shed. The $20-million, 6,300-square-foot facility will house up to 5,000 tons of sodium chloride, imported from Chile to de-ice the city’s roads in winter. Titled “A Building That Resembles What It Stores,” the Times feature praises how the architects elevated the mundane function by creating a monumental, origami-like sculpture inspired by salt crystals. Yet, while applauding the building’s aesthetics and symbolism, the newspaper neglects to ask an important question about its purpose: Does the city need all that salt?
Road salt can damage both human and ecological health, according to many sources. After snow melts, chlorides from road salt remain in the environment, and there is no natural process by which they are broken down and removed, so they can persist indefinitely, polluting water bodies and hindering survival rates among various species of fauna and flora. Higher salt concentrations in rivers and lakes change their water density, undermining the circulation of nutrients and preventing oxygen from reaching the bottom layers. The US Geological Survey estimates that sodium concentrations in over 40 percent of the country’s waterways exceed federal standards. Sodium that makes its way into drinking water supplies can be distasteful to all of us and quite harmful to the third of us who suffer from high blood pressure. Canada officially categorized road salt as a toxin over a decade ago.
More directly, if you’ve noticed how road salt damages your car, you get a sense of how corrosive it can be. The New York Landmarks Conservancy warns that de-icing products can cause “salt fretting,” when masonry surfaces scale and flake, mortar joints degrade, and surrounding vegetation suffers. In a report released in January, the New York City Comptroller found that the city annually spends an average of $1.8 million per inch of snow on road salt–$132 million in 2014 alone. The report concluded that the city often uses more salt than it needs, so dollar for dollar the practice is quite literally doing more harm than good. […]