Early winter shock: Counties, cities face high prices for hard-to-find rock salt

Wednesday, October 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CLEVELAND (AP) _ Governments bracing for slick roads this winter are faced with a shortage of rock salt, caused by heavy demand lingering from last year's harsh winter in the Great Lakes region.

In Cuyahoga County, officials are looking for 5,000 tons of salt but can't find anyone willing to sell it.

``That's the first time something like this has happened in the 25 years I've worked here,'' said Roman Fedkiw, purchasing agent for the county engineer.

Andy Briscoe, director of public policy for the Salt Institute, said the frigid winter last year exhausted most salt reserves and led to unusually heavy demand this year.

``We are on pace to either be equal to our record 1996 or beat that, and from a capacity standpoint our industry is pretty close to full,'' said Briscoe, whose organization represents the world's major salt producers.

U.S. highway salt sales topped 20 million tons for the first time in the winter of 1996 but dropped to 10.2 million tons in the mild winter of 1998. In 2000, sales were back up to 18.1 million tons.

By June of this year, salt sales had already reached 10.1 million tons, Briscoe said.

Minnesota-based Cargill Salt, one of the biggest suppliers in the country, is operating at full capacity and still can't meet demand, said spokeswoman Lori Johnson.

``We are turning away business,'' she said. ``We are essentially tapped out.''

Joseph Wojtonik, a spokesman for Chicago-based Morton Salt, said supplies are low because the season began early last year and ran long. ``We were still selling salt in the spring when normally we would be bringing it up and stockpiling it,'' he said.

Communities that are just now buying salt are paying a premium price.

Bob Zienkowski, director of administrative services for Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights, said the price nearly doubled for the 12-community consortium he buys for, to $40.10 per ton from $21.65 last year.

Janel Davidson, with the street department in Huntington, Ind., said she spent weeks trying to find a supplier for the 250 tons of salt the city needs.

``I was starting to get kind of panicked,'' she said. ``Every place I called said if you hadn't been a prior customer, you couldn't get it.''

In the end, a broker agreed to sell Huntington the salt for $43 a ton, up from the $27 the city spent last year.

The New York State Department of Transportation ordered early and got guarantees for the salt it needs. But the state will end up paying millions more than last year, said Joe Doherty, program manager for snow and ice control.

``There has been anywhere from a $2 to $10 per ton price increase,'' Doherty said.

If the Midwest has another severe winter, cities may again struggle to find affordable salt next year, especially if they wait too long to stock up, said Johnson. Road crews can use sand as an alternative, although it's not as effective as salt.

``They need to fix that process and get that product as early as they can,'' she said.