Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 8, 2014

Down but not out

Local highway and public works departments running low on salt

BY JOE OLENICK joe.olenick@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Winter has certainly taken a toll, with subzero temperatures and roughly 90 inches of snow falling on the Buffalo-Niagara Falls region so far this season, according to the National Weather Service.

Local highway and public works departments have had to pay attention to things such as overtime costs and equipment upkeep. And they’ve also had to keep a close eye on their rock salt, used for de-icing the wintery roads.

Municipalities in eastern Niagara County are reporting they’re low on salt, but none are dangerously close to running out. Since it is February, there’s hope that with a little help from Mother Nature, local road crews have enough salt to make it to spring.

”We’re low, but not out,” said David J. Miller, Lockport town highway superintendent. “We’ve got enough to keep going.”

The problem is that North American Rock Salt, the Kansas City-based salt provider for municipalities throughout the state, is behind on orders. North American services cities, towns and villages in the northeast, including New York state and the New England region. 

Demand is high across the nation for salt, but the weather hasn’t made it any easier. The frigid temperatures and snow have made transportation and delivery difficult.

North American had at least two ships stuck in Cleveland when Lake Erie froze early this winter. North American has two salt mines in Ontario, not far from Detroit, as well as a stockpiling dock in Buffalo.

The Buffalo pile ran out. And the ships could only make it as far as the city of Port Colborne in southern Ontario. So, trucks have to pick up salt in Port Colborne and head east over the border to Buffalo.

That’s Buffalo, which has seen over 90 inches of snow, many closed roads and more than a few traffic advisories this winter.

Miller said Lockport received a couple of small salt loads Thursday. Like others, the town has an outstanding order of salt that hasn’t been filled yet. Of an ordered 2,000 tons worth, Lockport has received about 200 tons of it, Miller said.

A typical, two- to three-inch snowfall would require about 90 to 100 tons of salt to de-ice roads, Miller estimated.

Keith Hurtgam, Hartland highway superintendent, said the town received about 350 tons of the 1,000 it ordered three weeks ago.

Each municipality in New York is under a state Office of General Services contract with North American Salt. Under the terms of the contract, North American is paid a fixed price for a predetermined amount of salt, 70 percent of which the municipality is required to take delivery of regardless of the weather. Deliveries of salt are supposed to come every five days and any amount needed beyond the reserved amount can be billed at a different price.

Under the contract, municipalities are unable to purchase salt from another vendor.

Close to nine inches of snow fell on the area Wednesday, causing cancelations pretty much everywhere. Mike Tracy, the deputy public works commissioner for Niagara County, said county trucks would use about 150 to 200 tons on average for a typical snowfall.

Municipalities have to reserve their salt amounts fairly early in the year. Officials estimate a total that has to cover the first quarter of a calendar year as well as November and December later on, they don’t consider the estimate as a complete winter season.

The county usually reserves 5,500 tons of salt for a winter season, Tracy said, but sometimes the amount isn’t enough.

”This is one of those years where that’s not going to work,” Tracy said. “We have about 80 percent of the reserved amount already, that’s not a lot to play with.”

Kevin O’Brien, the county public works commissioner, said Niagara received a delivery of salt on Wednesday. The county is low but should be fine in the short-term.

”It’s a concern for everybody,” he said.

So, highway departments have to be careful with when and how they use salt. Terry Nieman, Royalton’s highway superintendent, said about 200 tons of salt have come in of an order placed Jan. 24 for 500. Wednesday’s snowfall would’ve called for 300 tons in a 24 hour period.

”We’re not using as much, we’ve cut back on application and we’re making it stretch,” Nieman said. “We’re going to do the best we can with what we got.”

Some municipalities wait until the majority of a snowfall has fallen, so not to plow off any salt. They’re regularly salting just intersections, hills and curves to be efficient and help preserve the amount of salt they have.

And then some departments are mixing sand or crushed rock in the salt, so it’ll spread and stick easier. A possible issue with that though, is the sand or rock could get into the sewers and plug things up.

This isn’t the first time there’s been a salt supply issue, Nieman said. In the past, there’s been a few times during a normal or above normal winter where a supplier runs into issues.

But for now, municipalities will just have to keep an eye on their salt piles. And hope spring is here soon.

”Doesn’t make sense to put it down while it’s snowing,” Miller said. “We plow, then lay off (with salting) until the snow tapers off.”

”We have to be stingy, we can’t salt everything, every time,” Tracy said. “We’re being frugal and using salt sparingly.”

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.