October 11, 2008

Salt Shortage Looms As Winter Nears

By Hubbuch, Chris

The coming winter could be more slippery than usual. Road salt is so scarce that private contractors - and many county and municipal highway departments - can't even buy it this year.

North American Salt, one of the country's main suppliers, informed customers in a letter in August it would not have salt to sell them because its inventory was depleted last year and governmental orders were bigger than expected. The company did not respond to an interview request Friday.

Mark Klein, a spokesman for Cargill, another major supplier, declined to comment on his company's ability to fill orders.

The shortage can be blamed on heavy demand last winter coupled with increased orders this year from five states, including Wisconsin and. Illinois, said Richard Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, an industry trade association.

Salt mines are working to replenish the supply, but bottlenecks in the pipeline - including lock and dam closures on the Mississippi River and barge shortages - have hindered efforts, Hanneman said. Barge traffic on the river shuts down after November, too, and shipping by rail or truck is significantly more expensive, he said.

"There is plenty of salt in the world - it's just getting it to the right place at the right time," he said.

Officials with the city of La Crosse and La Crosse County, which piggyback on the state's contract, said they've been assured they will get the salt they ordered.

But Crawford County Highway Commissioner Dennis Pelock said his county never signed onto the state contract because North American Salt has a depot in Prairie du Chien, so it was cheaper and easier to get it directly.

This year, he was told all the salt in Prairie du Chien was spoken for.

Houston County in Minnesota was turned down by five salt suppliers, county engineer Marcus Evans told the board earlier this month.

There are alternatives to salt - such as sugar beet juice or other liquid chemicals - but they require different equipment, said Terry Meyer, co-manager of public works for Prairie du Chien. Saw dust, potash fertilizer and pea gravel can be used as well, he said, but none work as well as salt.

Pelock said he located one source in Minnesota - at double the price he paid last year. He said the county should be able to stretch its supply through the winter but may not have salt for the towns and villages that look to the county for their supply.

Tom Peterson plows five Kwik Trip lots as well as some motels and alleys in La Crosse. He generally goes through 30 to 50 tons of salt each winter.

This year, the independent contractor said the only salt he can get is the 40-pound bags sold at hardware and convenience stores. But that would cost three times as much - and he'd have to cut open 2,500 bags.

Instead, he'll tell his customers he won't be able to salt their lots.

Copyright La Crosse Tribune Sep 20, 2008

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