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Salt stress: Road-salt prices higher as winter looms

Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Budget-busting road-salt prices are leaving municipal officials in the Snow Belt hoping for a mild winter.

Salt supplies are tight following last year’s harsh winter, which depleted reserves, leaving many places in the Northeast and Great Lakes region to pay prices that range from about 5 percent above what’s normal to almost double.

“Everybody’s got their fingers crossed for good weather,” said Rebecca Matsco, an official in western Pennsylvania’s Beaver County, where one contract price came in at $109 a ton, 95 percent higher than what that price was last year.

The increases are frustrating to local officials who are locked into tight budgets. Some highway superintendents say they could choose to make their salt supplies last by mixing in more sand, which is cheaper. And others say the looming shortfall could force them to delay road projects. But they can’t stop salting slick roads.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop salting, it just means that it’s going to be more expensive to get these materials,” said Jack Cunningham, public works commissioner in the Albany, New York, suburb of Colonie, which is getting a relative bargain through a state contract charging $62 for a ton of salt, a mere 5 percent more than it cost last year.

Ohio’s Lake Township, which is paying about $90 a ton, says the good news is that it started the snow season with about 85 percent of what it needs already in storage. The local road superintendent, Daniel Kamerer, says he also employs a technique to make salt go further — moistening it with brine or other liquids to make it stick to the road rather than bouncing off.

Municipalities have been known to order thousands of tons of salt at a time. The prices they pay vary widely depending on the supplier they are working with, the volumes they are buying, current shipping costs and various other considerations. Officials in Syracuse, New York, for instance, report that their costs are flat after they extended a contract from last year.

Production snags at two North American salt mines have tightened the supply of salt.

Cargill is now dealing with a leak in a salt mine 1,800 feet under Lake Erie off Cleveland, one of three U.S. mines the company operates. The company spokesman Justin Barber said Cargill is trying to stop the leak, which is “lowering our salt production capacity for this winter season.”

Meanwhile the largest underground operating salt mine in the world, the Goderich mine under Lake Huron, off Ontario, has been dealing with an 11-week strike. The labor unrest caused production to slow for a time, said Tara Hefner, a spokeswoman for Compass Minerals.

One bright spot: People living in the snow belt might see their wish for an easier winter fulfilled. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a forecast last month predicting conditions would be warmer and drier this winter in parts of the North.

Still, there have been a couple of early-season storms already. Kamerer notes he had trucks out last week for an early-season storm that swept over the eastern United States.

“I get a little bit nervous,” he said, “when we have to go out before Thanksgiving.”

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