Northeast Ohio’s taste for road salt has been extreme this winter and some road departments have struggled to keep supplied, but there is no crisis.
“We are doing good,” said Brent Kovacs, public information officer for the Ohio department of Transportation’s District 4. “We have plenty of salt.”
Then he went on to say deliveries have been slower than anticipated, and stockpiles are at 45 percent.
ODOT and many area communities buy from Morton Salt, which has been criticized for slow deliveries.
“This has been an extraordinary winter season, which has created a significant increase in the need for road salt,” said Morton spokesperson Denise Lauer. “Our customer orders have surged due to the continued cold weather and snow events across the country. We’re taking a number of steps to re-supply our customers, such as running extended hours of operation at our production sites and stockpiles to accelerate salt shipments.”
Kovacs said District 4 has plowed 1,170,000 lane/miles so far this winter. That compares with 782,000 lane/miles at this point last year. The district includes six Northeast Ohio counties.
Akron Public Works Manager Paul Barnett said the city is on track to use 35,000 tons of salt, or perhaps a little more. That’s in line with what the city contracted to receive from Cargill. At $40 per ton, that would add up to a $1.4 million bill.
Barnett said buying salt is a guessing game done in the summer and fall that includes predicting the weather. He said salt must be mined all year to meet winter demands, so companies must anticipate demand before the snow flies. Only 40 percent comes from Ohio mines. The rest comes from the Lake Superior area and mines with transportation access to the Mississippi River.
In addition to traditional forecasters, Barnett also consults the Farmer’s Almanac, which he finds surprisingly helpful. This year, the city added 5,000 tons to its order in anticipation of more snow.
After a particularly nasty winter that isn’t showing any signs of abating, the Los Angeles Times reports that states and counties across the country say their supplies of rock salt are at an all-time low.
Because the cold has spread over so much of the country, there’s more demand than usual, stretching salt producers to capacity and forcing them to ration supplies. Some cities, such as Wichita, Kan., are so low on salt that they are choosing to salt only main roads, using sand for the rest.
“I think pretty much every salt mine in the country is out now, or very nearly,” said Harold Mayo, general manager of the Hutchinson Salt Mine in Kansas, where much of the Midwest’s salt is mined. “It’s just a very unusual winter as far as demand.”
The mine is producing its capacity of 3,300 tons of salt a day, but is still turning away people who call trying to buy salt, instead giving priority to places that have a contract. To others, they can offer only a different type of salt not usually used for melting ice on roads.
The shortage is also affecting consumers who use salt to make their walkways and stairs less slippery — hardware stores in Missouri and Kansas, including chains such as Big Lots and Sears, said they were out of salt, and were waiting for more to come in.
“We have seen a large demand for ice melt,” said Tara Gudger, a Lowe’s spokeswoman. “As the end of the winter weather season nears, we’re continually working with suppliers to replenish store shelves.”
Many private snowplow companies are out of salt, too. Jileen Wingerter, who works at Marcum’s Landscaping in Sedalia, east of Kansas City, Mo., said her firm was told it couldn’t order any more because salt was too much in demand by states and cities.
“We’re totally out,” she said.
Wichita, for instance, placed an order for 1,000 tons of salt in December, but received only 800. The city can store 6,000 tons, but has stocked only about one-third of that. It’s mostly using sand for its roads, said Joe Pajor, deputy director at the Department of Public Works, though on some main routes it is using a salt-sand mix.
“We would hope that as it gets warmer we’d have the salt, but at this point we don’t have any particular expectations,” Pajor said.
Some places are trying to mix salt with additives to keep the roads safe. They include beet syrup, potato juice, cheese brine, tomatoes and a corn-based product to improve adhesion and reduce salt usage. The products started appearing in the late 1990s. But their use has been surging amid worries about large amounts of salt contaminating groundwater supplies.
“We can cut your salt usage by a third, saving people some money in the long run,” said Mike Demaray, sales manager for Beet 55, one of the salt-spray mixer options. The sticky substance tints the snow a brownish color but can be washed off cars and clothes with soap.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation is trying out Beet Heet in Butler County, a product made from processed sugar beet molasses. Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee are using the same or similar products.
Meanwhile, officials are trying to move salt from places it isn’t needed to places that have nearly exhausted their supplies. Two ships carrying about 50,000 tons of salt arrived Wednesday in Wisconsin to help supply communities in need.
“We have enough in the state, but just not in the right places,” said Michael Sproul, an engineer with Wisconsin’s winter maintenance program. Storm after storm this winter has eaten up 60 percent more salt than the average expended during the last five winters, he said.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro. Material from The Los Angeles Times was included in this article.