Extreme Weather Causes Salt Shortage

The Associated Press reports that the nation’s supply of salt for spreading on icy, slushy roads is down to dangerously low levels, forcing communities to ration supplies or try exotic new ice-melting substances.

Cities have already gone through most of their salt well ahead of the time they traditionally really need it — when the coldest part of winter gives way to temperatures just warm enough to turn snow into freezing rain and sleet and roads into ribbons of ice.

“If we don’t get the salt, at some point people are going to be sliding all over the place like what you saw in Atlanta,” said Julius Hansen, public works director in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, citing last week’s television images of thousands of motorists getting stranded on ice-covered roads in the South.

Demand is so high that salt gets more expensive every day. Communities are trying to decide whether to buy a little more salt now, when it costs twice or three times more than earlier in the season, or wait until it does snow more and risk paying even higher prices.

Cities are trying creative ways to stretch their supplies: spreading salt only on intersections and major roads and mixing it with sand. In Indiana’s Morgan County, there is so little salt left that it will be mixed with sand and used only on the hills. In Pennsylvania’s Butler County, they’re trying out a product called Beet Heet, made of processed sugar beet molasses, for anti-icing purposes.

Milwaukee road crews are experimenting with liquid cheese brine, mixing it in with rock salt before it goes on the road to make the salt wetter. In Wichita, KS, road crews will use sand alone when the salt runs out. But sand has its limitations and can create problems. “Sand gives you some traction to get started, to stop, but it doesn’t do any melting,” said the city’s public works and utilities department.

Some communities must make do with the salt they have; no more is coming. Others have found salt for sale, but it must be transported by train from as far away as Utah or Canada. Or they have been offered salt that is on barges, but the barges are stuck on frozen rivers and waterways.

“So the municipalities that could buy bulk salt early in the year at $53 a ton are now paying $130 a ton a week ago,” said Tom Breier, general manager of Ice Melt Chicago, which sells salt to cities and school districts. “And I heard the prices have gone up to $175 to $180 a ton. It could easily go to $200 a ton or more.”