Call it the Great Salt Shortage of 2014.
Connecticut has declared a state of emergency, requesting help from the federal government in the hunt for salt. Georgia officials have lobbed accusations of rock salt price gouging. New Jersey is using an unusual substitute to keep its roads ice-free: pickle juice.
Though Massachusetts has kept road salt in stock, some municipalities have said their supply is running low.
“We haven't gotten to the point where there’s absolutely nothing in the yard,” said Joe Foti, director of public works in Chelsea. “But we’ve had to be more stingy in the last couple of storms, more cautious on where we’re putting the salt down and how we’re putting it down.”
This winter’s relentless series of snowfalls has made de-icing salt a hot commodity for public works agencies, and suppliers around the country are struggling to keep up.
‘Our shed is pretty much empty, so we have to fill it up.’
“The demand on the salt industry has been very, very heavy,” said Paul Lamb, terminal manager at Chelsea-based Eastern Salt Co. “We do the best we can to keep customers in supply.”
At the company dock, that has meant nearly constant shipments. One arrived Monday night and another Tuesday afternoon, both from suppliers in Mexico. Next Monday will bring another shipment, probably from the company’s salt mines in Chile.
Even though each ship carries 50,000 to 65,000 tons of salt, he said, the salt goes fast.
Lamb estimates that Eastern Salt supplies about 45 percent of the cities and towns in the state, including the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the city of Boston. This winter, the company has received calls from as far away as Maryland from municipalities desperately seeking salt and willing to pick it up.
But Lamb is not taking on any new customers now, as he wants to ensure that all his regulars are getting what they need.
“We do turn people down, because we’ve got to be able to take care of our own customers,” he said.
Compared with other state agencies, MassDOT is sitting pretty: The department has 80,000 to 100,000 tons of salt on hand, including a large shipment that arrived over the weekend, spokesman Mike Verseckes said.
But other cities and towns have not fared as well.
“We have a little bit of a shortage,” said Jay D’Ambrosil, Department of Public Works supervisor in Revere.
“Our shed is pretty much empty, so we have to fill it up,” he added.
In Chelsea, Foti said his department has had to use salt sparingly, concentrating its pretreating efforts on hills and inclines, but leaving flat stretches of road with only thin layers of salt or no salt at all. It has also abandoned salting efforts during storms, because much of the precious crystals will be promptly pushed aside by snowplows.
“We’ve really pretreated just the hills and dangerous areas,” Foti said.
Foti said the DPW has also been going through salt so swiftly that staff cannot employ their usual salt-saving methods. For example, it has recently started working with a liquid de-icing agent, a chemical that looks like molasses and, once sprayed onto salt, allows it to better stick to the road, so less is used. But with the quick succession of recent snowstorms, Foti said, employees have not had time to treat the salt piles.
“Once the salt comes in, we’re getting it out,” Foti said.
Foti said there is no risk that Chelsea will have to treat its streets with pickle brine, the salt substitute of choice in New Jersey as officials wait for a relief salt shipment to arrive.
“That’s an interesting one,” Foti said. “All this time, I’ve been throwing the pickle juice away. I should have been saving it.”
There is relief in sight for those short on salt. Forecasts for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday have highs near the 50s.
Surprisingly, no one is more excited for warmer temperatures than Lamb.
His customers are exhausted, he said, and so is his staff, who manage round-the-clock deliveries.
Sure, he admitted, the past six weeks of winter have been good for business.
“But even so,” he said, “enough is enough.”