A shortage of road salt and skyrocketing salt prices could mean slippery roads this winter in communities across the nation as officials struggle to keep pavement clear of snow and ice without breaking their budgets.
Heavy snow last year heightened demand for salt, and now many towns can't find enough of it. The shortage could force many cities to salt fewer roads, increasing the risk of accidents. Other communities are abandoning road salt for less expensive but also less effective sand or sand-salt blends.
"The driving public may be the ones who suffer on this," said Robert Young, highway superintendent for northwestern Indiana's LaPorte County, which has 20,000 tons of salt on hand — only half as much as needed to last a normal winter. Because of the shortage, three companies refused to bid on the county's request for more.
Prices have also nearly tripled from a year ago. The salt industry says the increased demand and higher fuel costs are to blame. But some officials insist salt prices have spiked more dramatically than fuel.
"That explanation doesn't wash," said Tom Barwin, city manager in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., one of several officials who have asked the Illinois attorney general to investigate the price increases. The office said it doesn't have jurisdiction.
Near-record use of salt
The United States used a near-record 20.3 million tons of road salt last year, largely because areas from the Northeast to the Midwest had heavier-than-average snowfall. Parts of Iowa and Wisconsin, for instance, got four to six times their typical amounts. Vermont, New Hampshire and other areas set records.
The harsh winter left salt storage barns virtually empty. Communities that needed additional salt late in the season had trouble finding it because supplier stockpiles had also been depleted, according to Dick Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, a trade group.
This year, many states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, requested bids early, Hanneman said, and salt orders grew significantly. Five states increased their orders by a total of 2 million tons over last year.
Suppliers quickly realized that at that pace, they would not have enough salt to bid on other contracts, he said.
The rising cost of gasoline and diesel compounded the situation, Hanneman said. Road salt — which, unlike table salt, is sold in large crystals — is transported by barge and truck from mines in Kansas, Louisiana and Texas. Some is shipped from as far away as Chile in South America.
State agencies that maintain interstate highways are supplied first, leaving smaller communities the hardest hit by the shortage, Hanneman said.
In Chesterton, Ind., about 135 miles northwest of Indianapolis, salt suppliers allotted the town only the 800 tons it uses in an average year — even though last year's snowfall was double the normal amount.
"Between safety and politics, we're going to have to salt the roads," Street Commissioner John Schnadenberg said.
Prices nearly triple
Last year, Chesterton paid Chicago-based Morton Salt $41.23 a ton for road salt. This year's quote came in at $103.63.
Morton spokesman Joe Wojtonik said the company increased production at its mines after orders rose between 8 and 28 percent.
"We're producing at the highest practical safe level we can," he said.
Schnadenberg plans to conserve salt when winter begins. "I think all the communities are going to replan on how much they salt and where," he said.
Other communities expect to use more sand or to adopt a cheaper sand-salt mixture. Neshannock Township in New Castle, Pa., plans to use a special pretreated salt mixture that isn't as expensive as regular road salt.
Livingston County, Mich., is turning to a slurry made from sugar beet pulp mixed with salt brine that could trim 25 percent from the county's $4 million snow-and-ice removal budget.
Still, this year's salt shortage could pose risks for motorists, who may need to learn to drive on slippery roads or stay home.
Said Neshannock Township Supervisor John DiCola Jr.: "Some of the services we've been receiving ... maybe we just aren't going to be able to do that anymore."