Salt in our wounds

Preparing for a price surge, Youngstown stockpiled salt at a lower cost over the summer.r.


Gov. Ted Strickland has asked the state highway department to review burgeoning road salt prices, which have raised concerns throughout the state about whether supplies will hold this winter, officials said.

Robert Durbin, the chief deputy for the Columbiana County engineer’s office, said the engineers state association has reported rates as low as $40 a ton in Stark County and as high as $158 a ton for Lawrence County in southern Ohio.

Mahoning Valley communities buy salt from the Ohio Department of Transportation either directly or through county engineer offices. The state paid $42 a ton for salt last year; this year it will cost about $60, said Scott Varner, an ODOT spokesman.

A spot-check of area governments showed:

• Columbiana County engineer’s office last year paid $169,945 for salt. The per-ton price went to $72.89 a ton Wednesday. That’s an increase to $324,360 this winter, said Becky McCarty, a spokeswoman for ODOT District 11 that includes Columbiana County.

• Mahoning County’s per-ton cost as of Wednesday went from $37.70 to $70.90. Marilyn Kenner, the chief deputy for the engineer’s office, said the price increase “will just cripple us financially.” The county’s order of 11,000 tons will cost $770,000.

• The city of Salem had been paying $38.19 a ton. The new quote from ODOT is $70.55. Steven Andres, the service director for Salem, said he had little choice but to buy the salt and deal with the increased price next year. Salem uses about 1,200 tons a year.

• Trumbull County’s price will go from $37 to $69 a ton.

McCarty said prices are high because salt company giants Morton and Cargill are facing increased demand, higher transportation costs and other factors; two salt mines suffered extreme damage.

Costs also may be up in part because of last year’s drawn-out winter, McCarty said. It isn’t the big storms that rack up the costs but the lesser snows that require treatment day after day, she said.

Some communities were able to stockpile salt from last winter.

Youngstown’s salt dome holds about 5,000 tons of salt, purchased for $45 a ton during the summer, and is full, said Joseph Mastropietro, the city’s street superintendent. The city’s $45-a-ton price is good through Dec. 1. Last year, it used 13,300 tons of salt, Mastropietro said.

After Dec. 1, the price will definitely increase, he said.

“We’re going to try to negotiate a good contract,” he said. “I think we’re in good shape.”

John Deane, highway superintendent for the Trumbull County engineer’s office, said the office was able to buy about 4,200 tons of salt at last year’s prices and had another 800 tons left on the grounds from last year.

That 5,000 tons may or may not be enough to get salt trucks through the winter this year because the office used about 8,000 tons last year, he said.

Deane said the office probably will mix its salt with a higher percentage of slag and use its salt a little more sparingly this winter with the knowledge that salt costs so much more.

Frank M. Tempesta, Warren’s director of operations, said he ordered about 1,300 tons of salt at last year’s prices and has about 100 tons left over, but the city used about 5,000 tons last year.

The city, which has cut out overtime in most departments to offset a budget shortfall this fall, will probably use a mixture of road salt and ash this year that is higher in ash content than in the past.

Ash costs about $8 per ton, compared to salt’s near-$70 per ton this year. The result will be that the salt, which normally turns your car white, will not be as prevalent as the ash, which turns the car black, Tempesta said.

Cars will probably still stop OK, because of the grit from the ash, which is a byproduct of steelmaking. But the snow and ice may not melt as quickly as before, he said.

“People just have to be cautious. There’s nothing anybody can do about it,” he said.

Likewise, Mahoning’s Kenner said instead of focusing on clearing the roads, the county will have to focus on “curves, hills and intersections,” Even then, the higher cost will leave that much less for other projects, she said. In Pennsylvania, counties don’t buy salt. The state and municipalities salt their roads and make the purchase.

In New Castle, road department clerk Mike DeSalvo said the city has a jump on this year because it has 200 tons of salt left over.

That will help some, he said, though it will likely last only long enough for three days’ worth of road treatments.

DeSalvo said the city had salt left over because it had to order more for a late-winter storm last year. The salt didn’t arrive in time to use it during that storm, but it’s going to be a money-saving windfall for 2009, he added.

Ash and sand, rather than salt, are not options for city streets, DeSalvo said, because they can clog storm sewer systems.

Union Township belongs to the Lawrence County Council of Governments, which may be able to tempt a bidder with cash up front and a promise to buy a specified amount of salt, said township supervisors chairman Pat Angiolelli.

He said options include mixing the salt with anti-skid materials to stretch it, and possibly buying surplus salt from the state.

He said he doesn’t know how much the state would charge, and there’s no way of knowing if the state will even have a surplus.

Ash and sand, he said, are not great options.

“It’s all right to do that,” he said, “but you have to remember, we get storms of freezing rain.”

The cycles of freezing and melting and ice buildup damage roads, he said.

In Mercer County, Sharon Mayor Tom Lucas and Hermitage street department head Dale Myers said salt prices will go up for their cities but not as much as for others. The two cities belong to a consortium that locked in prices in a contract that only allows so much of an increase, Lucas said. Salt prices for Sharon and Hermitage are increasing from $46 a ton to $54 a ton.

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. 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.

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