Prices are skyrocketing when many communities' budgets are tightening. The solution in at least one county: 'Tell the public to drive slow.'
By P.J. Huffstutter
10:17 PM PST, November 15, 2008
Reporting from Chicago -- Weeks before the first snowflakes fell on Hamilton County, Ohio, officials hunted far and wide for road salt. The only supplier that had some was in South America -- priced nearly 300% above what the county paid last year.
"We did the only thing we could: Tell the public to drive slow," said Steve Mary, a county bridge and maintenance engineer.
With winter approaching, supplies of road salt across the U.S. are running extremely low. Prices are skyrocketing, and transportation officials are frantically trying to find ways to pay the bill at a time when their budgets are tightening.
"Companies are selling their stockpiles as quickly as they can produce it," said Dick Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, a trade association that represents owners of salt manufacturers in the United States and Canada. "No one can keep up."
The salt woes stem from fears that this year's winter storms could be as bad as last year's, which dropped record levels of snow in some parts of the country, Hanneman said.
U.S. salt suppliers shipped a near-record 20.3 million tons last year compared with the average 16 million tons a year through the previous decade.
So, when it came time to put in this winter's orders, Hanneman said, many states put their bids in early -- and for amounts far larger than before.
Illinois ordered 34% more salt, about 421,000 tons. Iowa boosted its orders by 52%, and Wisconsin and Michigan also increased their orders by double-digit percentages.
The rising cost of gasoline and diesel added to the problems by making it even more expensive to ship the salt, which is usually carried by barge, rail or truck.
Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, paid $36.97 a ton last year for salt for 14 communities. Now, it's looking at $140 a ton for road salt from South America.
City officials in Illinois and Indiana are so furious at the rising prices -- and their inability to get salt -- that they've pleaded with state lawmakers and law enforcement agencies to launch investigations into possible price-fixing. The Illinois attorney general's office said such an investigation was beyond its jurisdiction. The Indiana General Assembly has yet to pick up the matter.
Salt manufacturers argue that they are doing the best they can with a difficult situation.
"Our mines in the U.S. and Canada are going 24-7, and we're subcontracting with salt companies from South America and Europe," said Joe Wojtonik, a spokesman for Morton Salt. "Even with all that, our supplies are short."
Even if salt were available, transportation officials say they are not sure it could arrive in time.
They recall how blizzard conditions last winter delayed trucks on highways, and ice on the Illinois River delayed barges from reaching northern destinations.
David Akers, a consultant for the Northeast Ohio Sourcing Office, a purchasing consortium for local governments and other public organizations, said he had found salt readily available from overseas companies.
The only problem: getting it to Ohio fast.
"They're telling me . . . eight to 10 weeks before you see it," Akers said.
"In eight to 10 weeks, we'll be in January. By then, snow will be on the ground and it'll be too late."
Some cities such as Steubenville, Ohio, are so worried about being caught off-guard that they are simply paying the inflated prices.
City officials completed construction last month on Steubenville's first road salt storage center, with hopes that they could better protect the 4,200 tons road crews use on average each winter.
A few days later, they ordered 2,600 tons and paid more than $200,000 for it. That was nearly $20,000 more than they paid for 4,200 tons last year.
"There was no way we could have a brand-new storage dome and have it empty," said Joe DeSantis, superintendent of the city's Street, Sanitation and Electrical Department.
"We'll make it last as long as we can."
DeSantis plans to conserve the city's supply by not salting neighborhood streets, focusing instead on main thoroughfares and well-traveled hilly roads.
Other communities are opting to mix in sand, brine or even beet juice to extend the reach of their supplies.
"We'll stretch what salt we have for as long as we can, and hope for warm weather," DeSantis said. "That's all we can afford to do."