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January 27, 2021
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News + Views

Salt Pile Plagues Columbia St.

By South Brooklyn Post
Salting the Wounds, and View, on Columbia Street
Photo by Joshua Kristal

Article by Frederick Fooy

As we anticipate the first snow of winter, Brooklyn’s Columbia Waterfront area is preparing to see another type of white substance covering streets, cars and windows. For the past three years a pile of white road salt has grown into a massive, five-story high heap overlooking Manhattan and marring views between Kane and Degraw streets.

On windy days–of which there are many in the Red Hook/West Carroll Gardens/Columbia Street Waterfront District, when tarps are removed from the pile for city Department of Sanitation trucks to fill up, the salt blows over the neighborhood. Residents, families, businesses, cars, plants and wildlife face a salty deluge that leaves a film on everything.

The mound, covered with tarp and weighed down with bags of salt, has been an eyesore in the most literal sense since February 2009.

“It started two years ago. It was a little hill, and now it’s a mountain,” said Freddy Saint-Aignan, who owns Sugar Lounge, directly across the street from the salt pile. The city uses the salt to spread on roads when the ice and snow come.

“When a truck is up there, filling up, it looks like a toy, that’s how huge it is,” Saint-Aignan says. “It ruins the view and, I’m sorry, it’s a health hazard. I’m sure it’s not sea salt. We have a lot of wind down here.”

The interesting thing is that in Manhattan, road salt piles are mostly covered and kept away from business and residential areas.

The History

Road salt is necessary to keep roads safe during the winter, and the piles need to be accessible to the Department of Sanitation. The city maintains roughly a dozen salt piles throughout the five boroughs.

During the late winter and spring of 2009, Columbia Street’s salt pile was uncovered for significant periods of time. Wind along the waterfront blew salt over the neighborhood, covering streets, backyards and vehicles in a whitish film, causing red eyes and sore throats, according to many reports by residents. Letters were written to city and state officials. Nothing happened.

Residents were further plagued by heavy truck traffic, as vehicles were loaded with salt late in the evening.

In 2005, City Council Member David Yassky’s office released a report titled, Waterfront Wastes and Opportunities. The city’s salt piles were included on a list of ten things that should be removed from the waterfront and replaced with “economic development opportunities or other uses that benefit the public, such as parks and open space.”

Unfortunately, the city has not made much effort to move or contain road salt piles.

According to The New York Times, American Stevedoring International, a firm that loads and unloads cargo from container ships at Red Hook’s docks, leases the property from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The firm told the paper that it stores the salt there temporarily before shipping it across the state.

In February, American Stevedoring’s Director of Commercial Operations, Matt Yates, met with the public and elected officials, including City Council members Steve Levin and Brad Lander, along with state Sen. Daniel Squadron. Yates admitted that mistakes had been made in handling the mineral, and took responsibility for the problem. He said the salt pile would be better managed.

By May, the pile had almost tripled. On May 12, Council Members Lander and Levin, Sen. Squadron, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblywoman Joan Millman sent a letter to the CEO of American Stevedoring, Sal Catucci.

The letter called for the removal of the pile from its current location, preferably to a different location in the port away from residents. The letter also asked Catucci to reduce the height of the pile.

With no need for road salt during the summer, the pile remained properly covered until November.

Locals are concerned about blowing salt this winter, now that the pile is so massive, and there is an every-growing number of families with young children in the area.

“The Health Department should come down here and sample the salt. That’s my concern. Thank God I don’t live here and my kids aren’t here, it’s just my business, but other people do have their families here. I’m sure the wind is taking it even into Carroll Gardens. The weird thing is you don’t feel anything. But you see it everywhere. They should test it and tell us if it’s fine or not,” Saint-Aignan said.

Health Concerns

Salt is a potential risk factor for health. Mayor Mike Bloomberg campaigned against salt in our food with gusto, but so far nobody seems too concerned about mounds of it next to a residential neighborhood.

There are at least three potential health hazards associated with road salt: the salt itself, the anti-caking agents and possible additives.

Most published research on the effects of road salt comes from rural areas of the country, and mainly concerns effects of road salt on wildlife. The findings contain no surprises: Salt is an irritant, can irritate the respiratory tract and causes hypertension. Some pet advocacy groups claim that road salt is harmful to dogs, and aquatic life may be particularly susceptible. Canada is considering listing road salt as a toxic substance due to the salinity itself.

The anti-caking agent used in U.S. road salt is typically sodium hexacyanoferrate (II), an FDA-approved food additive, completely non-toxic. Though some evidence suggests that sunlight and bacteria can trigger a toxic substance (cyanide) to be released from road salt.

Salt entering the port of New York in 2005 was of Chilean origin. It contained perchlorate, a contaminant regulated by the EPA. Perchlorate may affect the functioning of the thyroid gland in humans.

The Salt Pile Does Not Belong on the Brooklyn Waterfront

The inhabitants of New York City are finally returning to use and enjoy the Brooklyn waterfront after being disconnected from it for almost half a century. The mayor’s proposed goals for the waterfront include expanding public access, as outlined in the draft for New York City’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, Vision 2020. The expansion of Brooklyn Bridge Park aims to establish a world-class park on the East River, and the Brooklyn Greenway is poised to connect parks and neighborhoods along the waterfront.

Even if we disregard the health concerns, a massive mound of road salt does not seem to fit in with these plans.

It’s time for South Brooklyn’s Columbia Waterfront area to get the break it deserves. Since the building of the trench for the BQE back in the 40s, the area has been battered by scourges, recently including heavy truck traffic, the perpetual reconstruction of Van Brundt Street and the stunning amount of pollutants contributed by cruise ships idling in Red Hook. This latest pimple adds salt to the wounds. Enough already.

If you’d like to read more:

An Approach for Investigating Salt-impacted Sites

Salt and the Natural Environment

Worth his Salt: MPCA toxicologist stirs national support for research on piles of road salt.

Hazard Identification for Human and Ecological Effects of Sodium Chloride Road Salt

Road Salt May Be Listed As Toxic Substance in Canada

Potential Water Quality Effects from Iron Cyanide Anticaking Agents in Road Salt

How much salt is a problem?

Vision 2020 – draft recommendations

Salt pile continues to irk nabe at

Waterfront Wastes and Opportunities 2005

Columbia Waterfront Neighborhood Association

The Word on Columbia Street blog

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