America Is Running Low on Road Salt. Thanks, Winter.

The country is experiencing a run on salt.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Feb. 5, 2014, 8:26 a.m.

This winter, with its po­lar vor­tices and fre­quent storms, has driv­en up de­mand for road salt so much that mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies are start­ing to run low on sup­plies. And loc­al news out­lets are cry­ing “crisis.”

Here are some of their cries:

  • In West Mo­re­land County, Pa., CBS is call­ing the salt situ­ation dire. “We were prom­ised 400 tons last week,” a pub­lic-works of­fi­cial in the area told the out­let. “We only got 75 ton. We were prom­ised 100 ton today; I got 100 ton.”

  • In Delaware County, N.J., the town­ship roads com­mis­sion­er told a loc­al pa­per, “We’re as close to a state of emer­gency as you can get,” and said salt vendors are telling him they are out of stock.

  • New York state is cur­rently re­lo­cat­ing 3,500 tons of the min­er­al down to Long Is­land from up­state, due to short­ages.

And many more.

Faced with steep, sud­den de­mand, ma­jor salt man­u­fac­tur­ers have turned to pri­or­it­iz­ing where to send their product. Mor­ton Salt, which pro­duces the min­er­al for roads as well as for food, told of­fi­cials in Clev­e­land “they can only bring up 10,000 tons a day and, about a week ago, were about 23,000 tons be­hind.”

Mor­ton ac­know­ledges its delayed de­liv­er­ies. “We know this is frus­trat­ing for cus­tom­ers and com­munit­ies, and we apo­lo­gize,” the com­pany said in a state­ment.

But why are sup­plies so low?

“There’s been high us­age, and then every­body want­ing to get the last of their con­trac­ted salt kind of at the same time, and it’s just a nar­row­er win­dow to get the salt,” says Mark Klein, a spokes­man for Car­gill, a ma­jor sup­pli­er of road salt.

So it’s ac­tu­ally more of a salt bot­tle­neck than a salt short­age.

The prob­lem is that mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies place their salt or­ders in the fall, based on pri­or us­age and long-range fore­casts. They typ­ic­ally re­ceive a min­im­um or­der be­fore the winter sea­son be­gins and re­serve the right to or­der up to a pre­de­ter­mined max­im­um amount. What’s hap­pen­ing now is that some loc­a­tions are ask­ing for their max­im­ums, all at once.

While bad weath­er in­creases de­mand for salt, it also makes de­liv­er­ing that salt much harder. Salt-car­ry­ing barges can’t pass through frozen rivers. Freight trains need to plow the path ahead of them. And de­liv­ery by truck is sty­mied for the same reas­on road salt is needed in the first place.

“These storms have just been re­lent­less,” Klein says, not­ing that it’s not the huge storms that drop a foot of snow that tax the salt sup­ply, the kind that call for snow plows. It’s the re­peated dust­ings of snow and ice. At this time last year, salt miners were work­ing less than a 40 hours a week. There were even some lay­offs. This year, “we’re work­ing over­time in our mines,” Klein says. In those mines, work­ers are blast­ing gi­ant 45-foot-by-25 foot walls of salt and then pro­cessing the crys­tals down to size for road use.

As de­mand for road salt soars, so do its prices. In the Chica­go sub­urbs, for ex­ample, of­fi­cials say prices are three times high­er than nor­mal. The Southtown Star re­ports that one pub­lic-works dir­ect­or “has talked with sup­pli­ers out of state and has been quoted prices as high as $176 per ton, far above the $49 a ton his vil­lage paid.”

“Salt is like gold,” he told the pa­per.

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