If last winter’s weather seemed like extreme punishment for much of the United States, experts said it will pale in comparison to the winter of 2014–2015. That’s because not only is a harsher than normal season predicted, but there will be a serious problem with salt for roadways and parking lots.
The precious commodity that is used through much of the eastern seaboard and in states as far west as Colorado is selling for double the normal price in some areas, largely due to last year’s extreme and prolonged winter.
“No matter how many [salt] mines are in the United States, if you were east of Fargo, North Dakota last winter you had an unprecedented winter,” said Kevin Gilbride. “This year, absolutely everybody was out of salt.”
Gilbride, who is executive director of the Accredited Snow Contractors Association and publisher of Snow Magazine, said last year’s polar vortex and long winter cleared out salt stockpiles used to de-ice roads and parking lots. In a typical winter, some supply would have been left over from the 450,000 tons purchased by a municipality or city from a supplier.
This year, with everyone starting from zero, prices have skyrocketed.
Coupled with empty salt coffers, the prospect of another harsh winter has led to larger orders. “Maybe if you normally ordered 200,000 tons, this year you ordered 300,000 tons,” he said.
States and municipalities are first in line for salt supplies, leaving private contractors in a bind, but the price increases pose a practical problem for everyone. Some government entities can’t afford the necessity.
With suppliers charging 25 to 100 percent more than the typical price, the cost is just too steep for some smaller government municipalities and counties. In Ohio, about 10 counties could not even consider the bids of salt suppliers because of the cost.
According to Gilbride, who travels frequently around the United States, the end of last winter was when he started hearing widespread concern from industry colleagues over impending price hikes. He started sounding the alarm back in June, and the scenario he warned of is now a reality.
To further complicate matters, the alternatives aren’t promising.
Though the United States is the second largest producer of salt in the world with more than a dozen mines, production can only move at a certain pace. Relationships with offshore suppliers in countries such as India, Egypt, Brazil, and Mexico are less common and less well-developed. The cost of shipping salt from overseas, especially when the quality can vary, could make the option unfeasible.
“They’re not relationships that consistently maintain, so they’re scrambling right now to find them,” he said.
Considering that most areas are increasing their stockpiles by about 20 percent or more, large cities in particular might be left plowing or putting down sand. But studies show that sand is ineffective after only a few cars drive over it, and plowing is a significant time and manpower investment that would likely leave side streets untended.
Then there are highly expensive chemical agents.
Martin Tirado, CEO of the Snow and Ice Management Association, represents 1,600 private salt suppliers throughout North America. Tirado said that calcium chloride and magnesium chloride are available to deal with snow and ice but are expensive options under normal circumstances. Instead, he believes that higher costs because of the unusually huge demand will be passed on to customers.
For now, Tirado said that “it’s too soon to tell” how everything will play out in the coming winter.
“There is supply out there,” he said. “The issue now is that it’s expensive.”