Op-ed: Salting of Mount Hood is Bad for Environment

The following article was published on May 11, 2014 in the Opinion section of the Oregonian. The authors, Dennis Chaney and Karl Anuta, are board members of the FOMH.

Salting of Mount Hood is bad for environment: Guest opinion

If you want to enliven the conversation at your next dinner party – short of ending the party, as can happen these days – try bringing up road salting. Everyone will have an opinion. But, should you then mention that one million pounds of salt will be dumped on Mount Hood this summer, you will see a lot of blank expressions.

The snow-belt states have studied and proven the negative impacts to plants, aquatic animals and water sources caused by salting. These states follow guidelines based on risk management studies.

And, yet, the U.S. Forest Service permits Timberline Lodge to dump as much salt as the corporation deems appropriate to extend skiing through the summer, without any studies of the environmental effects.

Salting started at Timberline in the 1950s. Timberline sells lift tickets, meals and mountain supplies, including the salt, to ski camps that train on the snowfield all summer. To be clear, the concern is not the presence of camps. The concern is super salt toxicity possibly contaminating the environment.

Palmer Glacier and its snowfield is the source of the Salmon River, which flows into the Sandy, and, not surprisingly, there is currently excessive salt in the Salmon system. The Forest Service tracks the salt levels, but it has not studied the effects on flora or the Spring Chinook, Coho, Steelhead, resident trout and the aquatic food chain.

In 1988, Congress declared the Salmon a National Wild and Scenic River. The Forest Service did a study on how to protect the river. The multi-tons of salt annually dumped for multi-decades at the river’s source were not even mentioned. Ironically, this system is a key part of the state’s recovery plan for salmon and steelhead. It is unknown if salting is affecting recovery efforts costing millions of tax dollars.

The Forest Service is not the only agency that turned a blind eye. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality did nothing until a lawsuit was filed against Timberline in 1996. The lawsuit argued that salting required a Clean Water Act certification. Timberline requested one, which DEQ promptly issued, so the lawsuit became moot.

The DEQ set thresholds on chloride and total dissolved solids and required “monitoring.” However, monitoring is just data collecting, which is done by a private contractor hired by Timberline. Again, like the Forest Service, DEQ has not done any investigating to learn the impacts on plants, animals and water.

Over the past 50 years, there have been many requests for studies on the effects of salting. For example, a PSU study called for more research and noted that several years of monitoring showed “Conductivity values were determined to be two to three times the values from other snow and glacier fed streams … and sodium concentrations were more than 10 to more than 100 times higher. These levels remain below thresholds of concern suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but possibly above levels for which species have been adapted.”

The elephant in the room is the meaningfulness of these thresholds, given 50 years of prior salting. Due to the lack of studies it is critical to apply what has been learned in the snow belt, such as, “There is a legacy effect of salt in the environment, which means that concentrations in surface and groundwater will increase, perhaps for decades, even if we stop using road salt today.”

Just as problematic as the lack of investigation is the unwillingness of the Forest Service to take action when thresholds are exceeded. For example, the total dissolved solids were exceeded in eight years out of a 14-year period, including four years straight, and salting continued.

Sometimes, it is educational to look beyond the borders of our state. The International Olympic Committee permits salting “only to prepare competition runs.” Also, salting glaciers has been restricted in Europe. Many European ski resorts have agreed to use mineral salts only for building World Cup ski race courses.

Mount Hood and its glacier streams is a national treasure managed by the supervisor of the Mt. Hood National Forest on your behalf. Salting will continue until you speak up and tell the USFS, DEQ and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to investigate the effects of salt on our priceless mountain streams.

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