Harsh snowstorms in the Northeast and Midwest sent many public works officials scrambling to clear roads this winter. The snow kept falling, decimating road salt supplies and sending locals hunting for the suddenly scarce commodity.
The storms hit several communities especially hard. In December, Fond du Lac County, Wis., used 3,357 tons of salt, compared with 464 tons a year earlier, according to The New York Times. West Des Moines, Iowa, road crews had to clear almost 60 inches of snow, compared to the annual average of 37 inches. For hundreds of other communities facing similar increases and higher gas prices to truck in salt, spring could not arrive fast enough. Now the planning begins for next season.
Where’s the salt?
Salt may be cheap and extremely plentiful — so much so that, “We’ll never run out,” says Richard Hanneman, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Salt Institute — but only a portion of the available amount is mined annually. “The question is how much do we bring up from the mines,” Hanneman says.
Most of the salt used in the United States is mined in Louisiana, New York, Ohio and Ontario, and salt companies must guess each year how much should be mined for winter. Those guesses are based on the orders placed by highway and public works departments. The Salt Institute recommends that agencies estimate their orders by taking 100 percent of the average of the amount of salt they used for the previous five years.
Many contracts with salt companies guarantee the purchaser that up to 120 percent of their order will be available to them at the contract price. “Typically, we will order around 18,000 tons each season,” says Mike Kennedy, director of winter operations for Minneapolis. “Every few years the winter will throw us a curve ball and we may even need more than the 120 percent. Then it’s a scramble and can be a risk because it gets real competitive, real fast. We would all love to share and help out our peer agencies, but we are usually all in the same boat. We have always been able to get at least something to eek through the winter, but have had to pay up to 50 percent increases, and then managed with that.”
Regional salt stockpiles are available to replenish agencies that need more than their average amount. But, because many agencies do not have room to store their entire orders, they leave tons of their reserved salt in the stockpiles until they need it, taking up room that could be used for extra emergency salt. That was one of the problems this year: So many municipalities needed salt at the same time, from the same stockpiles, that those supplies began to run low, and trucks had a difficult time getting the salt where it was needed. “No matter how much salt the companies have on hand, there is only so much material that can be physically transported at any given time,” says Bret Hodne, superintendent of public works in West Des Moines, Iowa.
A cubic yard of salt weighs a ton. “So, a half-ton truck only holds half a cubic yard of salt,” Hanneman says. “It takes many trucks to get the needed salt in.”
Using trucks to transport salt also drove up the cost, as the oil prices continued to rise during the winter. When numerous areas ran low on salt, some had to pay up to 70 percent more than average to move in more salt.
It is much cheaper and easier to stock up on salt during the summer and fall, when railcars and barges can transport it, rather than scrambling for it at the last minute, when trucks are the only transportation available, Hanneman says. This year’s salt dilemma was “a combination of [cities] not taking all [the salt] they need and the severity of the winter,” he says.
Although many cities scrambled to deice their roads, Steubenville, Ohio, was the only city Hanneman knew that completely ran out of salt. Officials there closed two major roads to have enough salt to keep other roads clear. “The citizens were inconvenienced but not endangered,” Hanneman says.
In a number of communities, officials had to get creative with their salt usage. “The transportation issues that affected salt availability forced us to take a step backward operationally, and we elected to blend heavy volumes of sand with our salt,” Hodne says. “It was interesting to see the negative impact that this practice had on service levels, and we haven’t even started the fun yet of getting to go out and clean it up.”
At least there was some forgiveness from residents. “The media attention regarding the salt shortages and winter driving conditions greatly assisted us in getting our residents to understand that it was not business as usual,” Hodne says.
As a result of the salt shortage, more public works officials are considering alternatives to coating roads with salt only. McHenry County, Ill., crews have been experimenting for about six years with an agricultural mix, which helps limit salt use and protects the environment. “Everyone is going to continue to use salt; it’s the mainstay of what we do,” says Mark DeVries, superintendent of operations for the McHenry County Division of Transportation (DOT). “But, we’re looking at alternatives to enhance salt and supplement it [for environmental reasons]. The salt and chemicals we’re using on the roads eventually wind up in our water system. So, we’re looking at some things we can do to help minimize the amount of chemicals in our water.”
Just as agricultural products are being used to develop biofuels, some products, like corn and sugar beets, can be added to road salt, helping to conserve it and still make the roads safe for travel. In McHenry County, the DOT is using its own “supermix,” which consists of 35 percent salt brine, 10 percent sugar beet and 5 percent calcium chloride. Since DeVries’ staff began using its supermix four years ago, the mix has become popular across the country and in Europe, and DeVries knows of about 50 other agencies that are now using the same concoction. “The agricultural part of [the mix] is expensive, but the salt is very cheap, so using 85 percent salt brine makes the mix more affordable,” DeVries says. “And, it’s much cheaper for our agency to make it ourselves than to buy a mix.”
Best of all, it works, DeVries says. “Think about spilling a Coke. If you walked through it three days later, your foot would still stick. That’s how the sugar beet helps the salt stay on the roads, so you don’t have to apply it as often,” he says.
In addition to agricultural products, a number of other chemicals combine with salt, such as calcium chloride, magnesium chloride and potassium acetates, but many are very expensive. In the Kansas City metro area, most agencies use a sand-salt mix, “but that is not as effective as straight salt,” says Dave Bergner, superintendent of public works in Overland Park, Kan. “We use salt only on arterials and the mix on lower-volume collectors and residentials. A neighbor has been using a bio-based additive to stretch the salt, and Missouri DOT has experimented with beet juice this season with good results. We will be looking at these and other products for next season. They are costly but allow for less use of salt.”
In addition to “stretching” salt by combining it with other products, some areas are considering additional storage to prevent problems. Because building storage facilities that will hold 100 percent of potentially needed salt is not feasible for many, agencies are joining to build regional storage facilities. For instance, last summer, West Des Moines officials met with other area agencies to discuss ways they could better manage snow and ice, and the group decided to build a new storage facility on a tract of land owned by the local solid waste authority. Through a partnership with the solid waste authority’s governing board, which includes representatives from all involved cities, the group will construct a 22,000-ton regional facility this summer.
The new storage unit will help the participating agencies minimize some of the issues they have experienced in the past with salt shortages, Hodne says. Each agency will purchase their own salt to store at the site, and nearby scales will record how much they remove from the facility.
The project will be financed by a five-year loan from the Metro Waste Authority, and participating agencies will pay an annual fee based on their allocated tonnage. After the five-year payoff, the agencies will establish a long-term fund to cover maintenance of the building and the site.
Gaining insight from the painful lessons of this past winter, local officials suggest early planning as one of the most effective ways to avoid problems. Use time in the spring to research and experiment with agricultural additives, and carefully calculate the correct amount of salt to order for next year, they say. “Make sure you do your bid documents early enough to allow the company to move salt by rail and water, and take delivery of as much as you can store,” Hanneman says. “Having salt on hand is an insurance policy.”
Salt companies ensure that all amounts and special delivery needs are included in the bids, Kennedy says. “All the purchase agreements stipulate that the purchaser must take delivery of at least 80 percent of their bid order, but they guarantee that up to 120 percent will be available at the contract unit price,” he says. “That makes it so they can fix their prices with some confidence, yet we have some fluff in the order for above average needs.”
While ordering and receiving thousands of tons of salt throughout the warm months may seem excessive, the most successful snow controllers say it is simply wise planning. “Snow and ice control is one of the most vital services that local and state governments provide,” Bergner says. “Most people will rarely, if ever, need a fire truck or ambulance or police cruiser to respond, but we all welcome the sight of a big plow and spreader truck coming down our street after a big snow. As I have told several new bosses over the years, ‘They will forgive you for overspending for salt, but they will never forget if you don’t get the streets cleared because you didn’t have materials.’”
Nancy Mann Jackson is a Florence, Ala.-based freelance writer.