2009-02-07 / Front Page

Salt of the Earth

Local road salt supplies low, but adequate
by Scott Rawdon

Photos by Scott Rawdon Photos by Scott Rawdon LAKE AREA- Headed into winter, Ohio and its surrounding Midwest states learned that road salt would be scarce and very expensive this season. But, Lake Area residents shouldn't worry, said ODOT District 5 spokeswoman Kate Stickle. "No, ODOT is not experiencing a shortage of salt this year," she said. Having the unique ability to stockpile salt over the past year, ODOT purchased a significant amount of material at last season's prices, said Stickle. ODOT secured contracts for additional salt deliveries through competitive bidding. With the increased cost of salt and a growing demand for salt, she said ODOT also put together a Smart Salt Strategy designed to make certain that the department is 30 percent more efficient with the salt on hand while still ensuring continued safety on our roads. "With the Smart Salt Strategy in place, ODOT has been able to meet the state's needs for the winter season," said Stickle.

ODOT's Smart Salt Strategy includes: • Applying a saline solution (brine) to road pavements immediately before the occurrence of a winter event to prevent the formation of frost, black ice, or a frozen bond of snow and ice to the road surface. • Using calibrated salt spreaders, found on every ODOT snowplow, to allow crews to adjust the application of ice-melting materials. • Infrared temperature sensors allow crews to see the exact surface temperature of the roadways, so salt is applied only where needed.

Locally, Union Township Trustee Jack Justice expressed similar optimism. He said the township is mixing gritor sand and gravel to boost traction-with road salt, but he expects Union Township's salt supply to last through the season. Also, Thornville isn't buying salt from Union Township this season, which helps the township to conserve its supply. Justice said he doesn't usually like to use grit because, ironically, it makes the dry road surface slippery after the snow melts, but this year it's necessary.

Thornville Village Administrator Ron Koehler said the village is buying salt from Perry County, but the county is running low and so is Thornville. Like Union Township, Thornville is mixing salt with grit to make it last. "It's going to be close," he said. Koehler is optimistic the village's salt will last through the season, but Thornville could use another 20 tons.

He may want to call Randy Kemmerer, Walnut Township road supervisor. "We're in real good shape," said Kemmerer, at least for now. Wednesday, Kemmerer said the township has 800 tons in stock, but no one knows how much more snow is in store for the season. "It's hard to say what it'll be like in another month," he said.

ODOT officials studied the causes behind this year's inflated salt prices. According to the study, bad weather led to historic consumption. More than 20.3 million tons of salt was used nationally during the 2007-2008 snow season, the second prolonged winter season in three years. Not only did ODOT use a record 906,623 tons of salt, other Midwest states consumed significantly more; Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois collectively consumed 700,000 tons extra of salt. These states then placed early salt orders to replenish their stockpiles, which depleted reserve supplies and drove up prices.

The study also concluded that contract specifications led to artificial shortages. Ohio uses contracts that set a minimum amount of salt the state guarantees to purchase and a maximum amount the contractor must make available. Typically, the minmax contracts are set at 50-150, whereby the state agrees to buy 50 percent, but may purchase 150 percent of the contract's volume. As a result, for every one ton a salt supplier is assured to sell, it is legally obligated to stockpile two extra tons of salt. The need for suppliers to maintain such large inventories of salt due to these contracts results in a considerable portion of available materials being taken off the market. In practice, however, it's unclear whether Ohio's salt vendors are even able to deliver the full 150 percent of any particular contract.

Finally, the ODOT study revealed that domestic preferences led to reduced competition. Of the five Midwest salt-producing firms, only Cargill and Morton Salt operate mines in Ohio. Under the state's domestic preference statutes, these two firms are guaranteed to win contracts when competing against each other. During this year's state bidding process, however, ODOT received only one bid in many counties from either firm; Morton and Cargill never competed headto head. Revising the current domestic preference rules could encourage more competition and eliminate the type of county-bycounty monopolization behavior experienced across the state.

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