clock menu more-arrow no yes

How bad is Boston's winter? They’ve run out of room to dump the snow.

A Newton patio is out of commission with snow, and it seems like a long time until Boston area residents will be dining al fresco.
A Newton patio is out of commission with snow, and it seems like a long time until Boston area residents will be dining al fresco.
(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Boston has gotten a truly ridiculous amount of snow this winter, with a record 60.8 inches falling over the past 30 days.

There's now so much snow that the city has run out of places to put it, Mayor Martin Walsh told the Boston Globe. The lots where the city's bulldozers normally take the plowed snow are completely full. Sidewalks and roads are clogged:

So Walsh has offered up a controversial suggestion — let's dump some of the snow in Boston Harbor.

Why dumping snow in the ocean is controversial

Snow is removed from the roof of Rotary Variety in the South Boston neighborhood on February 8, 2015. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Normally, dumping plowed snow into waterways is considered a bad idea. After all, the snow that's been on roads and highways is filthy. It's mixed with chemical-laced road salt, motor oil, dog poop, trash. Not only that, but some of the snow could potentially freeze in chunks and threaten boat traffic.

The EPA doesn't regulate it, but state agencies often recommend against dumping snow in rivers or oceans. Massachusetts state law forbids coastal towns from doing so — unless the snow threatens public safety and they get an emergency waiver. There's a reason for this: Boston Harbor was notoriously polluted and overrun by sewage for many decades and the state had to spend billions cleaning it up.

Instead, most cities normally dump the snow in "snow farms" further inland so that the soil can filter out contaminants as it melts and runs toward the sea. During storms, cities like Boston and New York will also ship some of their snow to melters, which send the water to treatment plants to remove contaminants.

But desperate times call for desperate measures

Crews use an Aero Snow Melter to dispatch mounds of snow at the Marine Industrial Park snow farm on February 8, 2015. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

But sometimes emergency situations override these concerns. When coastal cities accumulate an insane amount of snow, it can become dangerous. The snow piled up alongside roadways can get so high that drivers can't see. Pedestrians stop using sidewalks and start stumbling down streets.

That's why, back in 2011, after another large snowstorm, state Sen. Jack Hart called for a "Boston snow party," suggesting the city dump the snow in the harbor. Boston also got a waiver under state law in 2013 to dump some snow into the harbor.

Now Boston — along with a number of coastal cities — may need to do so again. (Salem, Lowell, Lawrence, and Marblehead have already received waivers.) "I don't know if we'll get environmental push-back," Walsh said, according to the Globe. "At some point, public safety in my opinion comes up first."

Further reading: How America became addicted to road salt — and why it's a problem

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.