Image: Mountain of piled up snow
Cheryl Senter  /  AP
A mountain of snow towers over the back parking lot at The Loop shopping center in Methuen, Mass., on Tuesday.
By
updated 2/4/2011 12:32:46 PM ET 2011-02-04T17:32:46

Imagine the East Coast's largest cities mixing a brew of salt, motor oil, trash and grocery carts and dumping it into rivers and harbors.

It's allowed in emergency situations, and some officials staring at massive snow mountains in densely populated areas of the winter-walloped Northeast say that time is now, even as others warn dumping snow in water comes with big problems.

    1. Hoffman withdrew $1,200 hours before death: sources

      Philip Seymour Hoffman withdrew a total of $1,200 from an ATM at a supermarket near his New York City apartment the night before he was found lifeless in his bathroom with a syringe still in his left arm, sources told NBC News.

    2. NYC mayor will skip St. Pat's parade over gay ban
    3. Indiana man back home 18 years after abduction
    4. 32 states in the path of another wild storm
    5. Judge vows quick ruling on Va. marriage ban

"There's a lot of stuff in this snow that if I isolated it and threw it in the river, you'd have me arrested," said John Lipscomb of the New York-based environmental group Riverkeeper.

Snow from the East Coast's insistent winter is being plowed into banks that are narrowing up roads and highway ramps like hardening arteries, blocking drivers' sight lines, and forcing schoolchildren to break paths like cattle down buried sidewalks.

In a normal winter, the snow melts on a good day or is carted off to designated dumps where it eventually filters its pollutants through the earth or is treated before ending up in sewers.

This is not a normal winter. Many East Coast cities, including Boston, Hartford, Conn., and New York are on their way to setting seasonal snowfall records, and the extra snow means extra road salt and human refuse that gets swept up by plows.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn't directly regulate dumping snow but recommends against dumping it in water. It also urges state and local governments to include snow disposal restrictions in storm water management plans.

Some states and municipalities restrict dumping snow into waterways out of fear of harming water life and polluting drinking water. Massachusetts is one of them.

Even so, state Sen. Jack Hart has called for a "Boston snow party," with snow being poured into Boston Harbor like tea was long ago. Despite the state's long battle to clean up the once-notoriously polluted nook of Massachusetts Bay, he's getting support from unlikely allies.

  1. Only on NBCNews.com
    1. OWN via Getty Images
      From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
    2. pool via Reuters file
      US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
    3. China: One-child policy is here to stay
    4. NRA: Practice Range
      New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
    5. 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
    6. AFP - Getty Images
      China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
    7. AFP - Getty Images
      French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali
Bruce Berman of the group Save the Harbor, Save the Bay said that he normally wouldn't support such dumping, but that high snow banks are making it dangerous to just move around Boston, and that the deep and active harbor can handle it.

"When there's a compelling reason — and believe me, these storms have given us a compelling reason — to snow dump, I support it," Berman said.

But Boston has yet to seek to dump its snow in water. It has found room for nearly 71 inches of snow this year, about 50 inches more than it usually gets by this time of year, according to the National Weather Service. New York has seen about 58 inches; typically it has gotten 12 by now.

Video: Snow collapses gas station roof (on this page)

The hazards of too much snow mixing with a lot of humanity were well evidenced by a blizzard that paralyzed New York after Christmas. Many pedestrians simply gave up trying to use the sidewalks, instead walking down the middle of partially plowed streets. Uncollected trash piled up for days.

Ed Coletta of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection cautioned that besides the junk that ends up in snow piles — everything from common trash to grocery carts — it can freeze in large chunks and threaten boat traffic.

The pollutants are released when the snow melts, anyway, but snow dumping sites, quaintly called "snow farms" in Boston, lessen the damage, Coletta said.

Story: Falling ice at Super Bowl stadium injures workers

Ideally, they're placed in upland areas, away from sensitive environments, so the pollutants can be filtered out through the soil before they reach the ocean or drinking water, he said.

Still, Coletta said his department has allowed snow dumping in water when it's clearly the best option.

"This is an unusual year; when there's an emergency, or an issue of public safety, the policy can be flexible," he said.

Some people don't bother to ask. In Lawrence, Mass., Mayor William Lantigua caught a private contractor dumping truckloads of snow in the Merrimack River late Sunday and early Monday. Police are still investigating the possible illegal dumping, and no charges have been filed.

According to the police report, the contractor said he "knew it was wrong, but stated, 'It's just too much snow. Where else can I put it?'"

That question hit Waterbury, Conn., public works director John P. Lawlor Jr. after the lot he uses for dumping filled up for the first time ever.

"We could not squeeze another mouthful of snow there," he said.

  1. Partner links
    1. Top stories
    2. Severe alerts
    3. Pollen hot spots
    4. Airport delays
    5. Rush hour traffic

Lawlor figured he'd never be allowed to dump in the water, so he brought in a snow-melting machine from the Ohio company Snow Dragon, and it's clearing the downtown area over the next few days. Other cities, including Minneapolis, use the company's machines.

New York also trucks its snow to melters, which empty the water into the sewer system, then to treatment plants, where many pollutants are removed.

Snow Dragon's most popular machine costs $230,000 and measures about 27 feet long, 8 feet wide, and more than 8 feet high, said Jennifer Binney, director of sales and marketing. It melts 30 tons of snow an hour and discharges it, debris-free, into the storm drains, she said.

As well as it works, Binney noted, "It will never replace hauling."

That leaves large bodies of water as alluring dumping spots when the snow seems too high.

Expediency is no excuse to dump snow in water, said Anthony Iarrapino, an attorney with the environmental group the Conservation Law Foundation. The pollution problems are so severe that it should be considered only if there's really no other option.

Still, he conceded, "if the snow continues as it is, you may be reaching that tipping point."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Northeast crumbles under weight of snow

  1. Closed captioning of: Northeast crumbles under weight of snow

    >> thank you. the rash of storm this is winter have been taxing. now all that snow is pushing buildings to their breaking points. nbc's peter alexander is in connecticut with details. good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning. this is a real serious problem across the region. two more building collapses in this area alone overnight. one of the most recent examples is just across the street from us. police kept a safe distance away. we'll push in the camera. you can see for yourself this three-story brick building, 120 years old and it literally caved in, the third floor, beneath the weight of all the snow. witnesses say it sounded like an explosion at the time. as we come back out, i want to give you a sense of why this is happening. the parade of recent snowstorms piled up. and if you look down here, this is how hard the snow has become. for people in the northeast it's become too much. it's the threat that's weighing heavily on the entire northeast. among the latest buildings to buckle, this office outside boston. the employees escaped just moments before its roof collapsed following the latest punishing round of another foot of snow. across the region, dozens of similar scenes. watch this in connecticut where a gas station lost its roof. so did a bowling alley , a tennis club, even this taco bell restaurant. on thursday, dan scaglariani survived his own scare.

    >> i heard a banging and i checked in the dining room . there was a big hole . i didn't believe it would collapse like this.

    >> reporter: in new york roofing contractors have been working nonstop for two weeks.

    >> the thickness on the ice is causing major problems.

    >> reporter: experts say there are clear warning signs. when you're looking at the roof, how do you know there is a problem?

    >> well, one thing is when you have a heavy snow load you may see water dripping in. it can work under shingles and rubber membranes and you see ice dams which leads to leaks inside.

    >> reporter: it doesn't take a mountain of snow. consider this, depending how much water is in the snow, two feet on a normal-sized roof could weigh 38,000 pounds or 19 tons. if your roof starts creaking like an old wooden ship , get out fast. this elementary school is closed after a partial roof collapse.

    >> they are out there measuring. the concern was always the safety of the children. we have all flat roofs.

    >> reporter: in connecticut , several schools cancelled classes today. not a snow day , but a chance to inspect the roofs. with the number of record snow totals piling up, the northeast has already reached its breaking point. there is one way to deal with the snow. it's a roof rake. maybe you have never seen one. they can reach up to 20 feet to pull snow off the top of the home. one business said they normally sell five in a winter. this season they have sold 2,000. a lady in line said it is the biggest craze she's seen since cabbage patch kids .

    >> i want to get one of those. thank you so much.

    >> reporter: it's the modern day " american gothic ".

    >> yes, it sure is. thanks.

Photos: Deep freeze, snow across U.S.

loading photos...
  1. Irving, Texas

    This sculpture was iced over Thursday, Feb. 3, in Irving, Texas. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Miami, Oklahoma

    A pickup truck that plunged off this snow-covered bridge near Miami, Okla, on Thursday sits in the Spring River. Three people were killed and five others injured. (Gary Crow / Tulsa World via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Chicago

    The Chicago skyline is reflected on a thin layer of ice as a chunk of snow-covered ice floats in Monroe Harbor on Thursday. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chicago

    Robert Brigs shovels snow on Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago on Thursday. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Iowa City, Iowa

    A car sits abandoned in the median of I-380 between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Iowa City on Thursday. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Commuters brave subzero wind chills as they return to work Thursday in Chicago. This week's blizzard dumped more than 20 inches of snow on the city. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Racine County, Wisconsin

    A man walks behind high snowdrift in Racine County, Wis., on Wednesday. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Auburn, Mass.

    Officials walk past a building that collapsed in Auburn, Mass., on Wednesday, Feb. 2, after days of heavy snow followed by rain. (Paul Kapteyn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Elizabethtown, Pa.

    A fallen tree weighed down with ice sits on Old Hershey Road in Elizabethtown, Pa., on Wednesday. (Blaine Shahan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Milwaukee, Wis.

    This walkway to Lake Michigan was frozen over Wednesday in Milwaukee, Wis. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Chicago

    A commuter climbs over a snow bank to catch a bus Wednesday in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Chicago, Ill.

    Hundreds of cars are seen stranded Wednesday on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. (Kiichiro Sato / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Chicago, Ill.

    Snow piles up on the driver's seat of a stranded Chicago Transit bus on Wednesday after the door was left open during the overnight blizzard. The bus was abandoned on Lake Shore Drive. (Kiichiro Sato / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Akron, N.Y

    Andrea Todd shovels snow from her driveway with her dog Myles in Akron, N.Y., on Wednesday. (David Duprey / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Milwaukee, Wis.

    A wave sends large chunks of ice into the break wall at the Milwaukee Marina in Wisconsin on Wednesday. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Iowa City, Iowa

    Downtown Iowa City, area near the University of Iowa, is a virtual ghost town on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Windsor, Conn.

    People stop along Interstate 91 in Windsor, Conn., to help push a car out of a snow bank on Wednesday. (Jessica Hill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Chicago

    Blizzard winds swirl the snow on an elevated train platform in Chicago early Wednesday. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Buffalo, N.Y.

    Frost forms on a window in Buffalo, N.Y., on Wednesday. (David Duprey / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Salem, N.H.

    This car landed vertically into a snowbank after a multiple vehicle accident on Interstate 93 on Tuesday north of Salem, N.H. No one was injured. (Tim Jean / The Eagle-Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. New York City

    The Wednesday morning commute in New York City's lower Manhattan was an icy one. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Westfield, N.J.

    An officer blocks the road to prevent pedestrians and traffic from approaching a fallen tree branch and power lines in Westfield, N.J., on Wednesday. (John Makely / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Milwaukee, Wis.

    A cyclist tries to ride during the blizzard in Milwaukee, Wis., on Wednesday. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Barre, Vt.

    A dog named Muldoon waits for its owner, who stopped for coffee on Wednesday in Barre, Vt. (Toby Talbot / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Chicago

    Men help push a car that got stuck in a snow on the Lake Shore Drive in Chicago early Wednesday. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Milwaukee, Wis.

    Students from Marquette University in Milwaukee to go to the Union Building in blinding snow as a blizzard warning hits southeast Wisconsin on Tuesday. Marquette canceled classes for Wednesday. (Rick Wood / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Chicago

    Cross country skiers navigate through snow downtown Chicago on Tuesday. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Chicago

    Rush hour traffic crawls as blowing snow batters Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Columbia, Mo.

    A snow-and-ice covered Chris Gubbels pauses while walking his dog Tuesday in Columbia. Mo. (L.G. Patterson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Chicago, Ill.

    Snow falls on the Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as "the bean," in Millennium Park downtown Chicago on Monday. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. View from above

    This satellite image provided by NOAA shows the winter storm covering much of the U.S. on Tuesday. (NOAA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Fayetteville, Ark.

    A snow plow clears College Ave. in Fayetteville, Ark., on Tuesday as heavy snow falls. (April L. Brown / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Chicago, Ill.

    An approaching blizzard doesn't stop this fisherman Tuesday on Lake Michigan in Chicago. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Boonville, Mo.

    Trucks disappear into the white snow as they travel along I-70 on Tuesday near Boonville, Mo. (L.G. Patterson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rogers, Ark.

    Postal carrier Tip Burnett uses a rubber hammer to open a frozen mailbox at the National Guard armory in Rogers, Ark., during heavy snow on Tuesday. (Flip Putthoff / Northwest Arkansas Newspapers vi) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Brooklyn, N.Y.

    Morning commuters in New York City make their way over a snow covered Williamsburg bridge on Tuesday. (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Port Washington, Wisc

    Icicles form on a walkway along Lake Michigan in Port Washington, Wisc., on Tuesday. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Carmel, Ind

    A Bobcat is used to clear a parking lot of two-inch-thick ice in Carmel, Ind., on Tuesday. (Michael Conroy / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Lancaster, Pa.

    Icy patches made crossing the sidewalk in Lancaster, Pa., a challenge on Tuesday. (Richard Hertzler / Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Owasso, Okla

    Ila Dooley digs her car out to try and get to work on Tuesday in Owasso, Okla. Both of Oklahoma's major airports had to shut down due to the snow. (Mike Simons / Tulsa World via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. St. Louis, Mo

    Snow plows work to remove ice from Interstate 55 on Tuesday in St. Louis, Mo. A blizzard warning was in effect for the St. Louis area, as was a forecast for up to 20 inches of snow. (Tom Gannam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Albany, N.Y.

    Snow was also falling Tuesday in downtown Albany, N.Y. Most of upstate New York was under a winter storm warning and Gov. Andrew Cuomo opened the State Emergency Operations Center due to a forecast of up to 2 feet of snow in some areas. (Mike Groll / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Denver, Co.

    A woman braces against the cold and blowing snow as she crosses the street in the financial district of downtown Denver on Monday. School officials canceled schools in Denver for Tuesday. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Pembroke, Mass.

    Scott Buchanan scrapes snow off the roof of his house in Pembroke, Mass., on Monday as his yellow Lab Charlie holds a snow covered ball in his mouth waiting to play catch. (Stephan Savoia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Lexington, Ky.

    Lexington, Ky., police and firefighters work at the scene of an accident after freezing rain moved coated roads there on Monday. A section of Georgetown Road was closed after two separate accidents involving five vehicles. Freezing rain turned the bridge into a sheet of ice. (Charles Bertram / The Lexington Herald-Leader via) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Map: Storm wreaks havoc

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments