How Dangerous is Dumping Snow into the Ocean?

A “snow farm” located in Boston Harbor. When it all melts where will it go?

If you’re in New England this year, the only thing on people’s minds – apart from the Patriots’ Superbowl win – is the extreme snow fall we’ve faced.

Cities around the region are reaching record-breaking snow accumulation resulting in budget-breaking snow clean up for cities and towns.  What’s got most officials worried is that it’s only February.  Winter here in New England has a long way to go.

In Boston, a harbor city, with historically narrow and windy streets, crews are running out of places to put the snow.  Streets are becoming impassable, sidewalks are nearly non-existent.  Traffic is slowing to a halt, trains are freezing on the rails, creating difficult and dangerous traveling conditions for all.

When conditions go beyond salting and plowing, some municipalities use diesel-powered snow melters to dispose of the snow.  Massachusetts’ Governor, Charlie Baker announced that the state has bought two of these to help with condition across the state.  These machines are costly, but provide a slow, but guarantee of snow removal. But with the amount of snow the entire state has faced in recent weeks, snow melters will take a long time to whittle away at all the piles. Coastal cities, like Boston, are considering another dramatic option – plowing snow into the ocean. While this option is equally successful at getting rid of snow, it could potentially be more expensive in the long run.

While the act of dumping snow into the ocean has long been banned, there is the option for cities and towns to request a waiver from the state in situations where the accumulated snow poses a danger to the public.  However this has now become a very difficult debate for officials to maneuver – one of protecting public health no matter what side of the debate you are on.

It’s important to remember that dumping snow into the ocean is nothing like the snow that falls into the ocean during a snow storm.  Plowed snow is snow that has been dragged through the streets, always with large amounts of salt, oil, and any other debris left on the roads. That pollutes the ocean, and so can only be done if the snow constitutes a danger to public health — a point, some argue, Boston has approached.

But doesn’t that debris and pollution enter the ocean when the snow melts and drain through the storm drains?

The short answer is, “Yes”. Paul Levy, the first director of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, writes that he thinks it’s pretty silly to let Boston build up the snow in giant snow farms right near the water, but not let the city push the snow into the harbor – when it’s going to melt into the water anyway.  Forcing the city to create snow mountains only means wasting time that could be better spent getting rid of snow from increasingly clogged streets, he says in a blog post.

In a response to his original call for ocean dumping, Levy commented, “I’m not suggesting we make a habit out of it. I’m suggesting that when you have an emergency situation, with gridlock on the streets, extraordinary measures are called for. It’s just a matter of time before someone dies because an ambulance can’t get there; or a person slips off a snowbank in front of a car or truck, or isn’t seen walking on the street and gets flattened, or whatever. If doing the harbor disposal for a day or two could expedite the street cleaning, it’s worth a bit of environmental degradation. After all, we engage in environmental protection, at least in part, as a public health measure. If we are too pure about that, we can end up causing a different kind of public health problem.”

With more snow expected this week, the debate will continue whether to dump or not to dump.  Until it melts, we New Englanders, naturally a hardy group, will just continue to cry “Uncle” to Mother Nature.