Road salt suppliers pinched by demand

Snowy winter increases needs of towns, cities

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It’s a sweet time to be in the salt business.

A string of snow and ice storms from the Deep South to the Upper Midwest has created a boom for the salt industry. Snow-blanketed roads, sidewalks, runways and parking lots have required thousands of tons of rock salt, leaving supplies short and demand sky-high.

“It’s been a busy winter,” said Tara Hart, communications manager for Kansas-based North American Salt Co., one of the world’s largest salt suppliers.

North American Salt’s parent company, Compass Minerals, reported a net increase of 94 percent in its fourth-quarter earnings report while citing 81 snow events in the fourth quarter that caused the company’s fourth-quarter salt sales to increase by $45 million.

Denise Lauer, Morton Salt Inc. director of communications, said in the three months, the Chicago-based company’s shipments of road salt have tripled compared with last year.

“Our customer orders surged in recent weeks/months due to the intensity and frequency of the cold weather and snow events this season,” Ms. Lauer said in an email.

North American Salt continues to ship in salt daily from the company’s salt mines in Cote Blanche, La., and Goderich, Ontario, in a bid to keep up with a near-constant demand from towns, cities and counties caught short by this winter’s demands.

“The challenge really has been the fact that we haven’t had a break between storms,” Ms. Hart said.

Although the demand for salt rose sharply this winter season, the price tag hasn’t directly followed suit. Most companies and government agencies that purchase salt will arrange fixed contracts with salt-producing companies in the spring or fall.

“Price doesn’t fluctuate based on the amount of snow a region is experiencing,” Ms. Hart said.

When contracts don’t safeguard from spiked prices because of high demand, those small private companies can feel the heat of a big price tag.

“The issue is that companies don’t have an account. I think that’s where the supply and demand reflect those prices,” said Pete Davis, Asphalt and Concrete Elite Services president.

Some government buyers, such as the New York State Department of Transportation, have not experienced hiccups in their salt supply.

“We’ve done a good job managing our supply and anticipating the demand,” said Beau Duffy, NYSDOT director of communications.

But others have not been so lucky. Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared a state of emergency in his state last week in part because of dwindling salt stocks, and appealed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Obama administration for help. New Jersey officials are still awaiting a federal waiver to ship in a supply of new salt from Maine, and Providence, R.I., officials said Thursday said they barely have enough salt in stock to handle another storm.

“Everybody in the country is clamoring for salt,” Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick told the local Fox News affiliate. “It taxes the delivery systems that are in place.”

Lori Roman, president of the Alexandria-based Salt Institute, said, “This year there has been so many significant snow events that even the most prepared have found that they are running low on inventory.”

Some companies and agencies have taken lessons from past winter seasons.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has moved to cut waste with the use of ground speed controllers. The controller regulates the salt coming out of the spreader.

Michael Verseckes, MassDOT spokesman, said that 20 years ago, every lane-mile took 350 pounds of salt every snowstorm. Now, the new techniques cut that to 240 pounds.

Officials are also pre-wetting the salt with magnesium chloride to minimize the grains bouncing off the street and into the grass.

Hal Williams, manager of the Merrifield Garden Center in Northern Virginia, expanded his supplier network after his main supplier ran out of salt during one of the winter storms this season.

Mr. Williams and his staff took to the phones and heard, by chance, of a recent salt shipment.

“We’re customer-service-based, and if we run out of material, then we can’t service our customers,” he said.

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