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Early snow, ice melt area's road-salt supply

As the snow keeps piling up, the road salt keeps falling.

And falling.

December's record snow and near-record cold have dramatically increased road-salt use in the Toledo area, leaving highway departments scrambling to replenish supplies as the potentially heaviest snowfalls loom.

The Lucas County commissioners yesterday approved an emergency 1,000-ton purchase because Keith Earley, the county engineer, reported having used up all but 4,500 tons of the 15,000 tons of salt on hand on Dec. 1.

And one supplier said the demand for salt quadruple in December.

Len Sonnenberg, the office administrator for the Henry County engineer's office, said his last delivery arrived Thursday with a warning: more may not be available.

“Our supplies are pretty tight,” he said.

Luckily for Toledo officials, they ordered and received 10,000 tons late last month after using about two-thirds of the city's 45,000-ton stockpile. The city's in such good shape that other road departments are keeping a roving eye on city stockpiles.

“There's not a lot of salt out there,” said Bill Franklin, commissioner of the Toledo streets division. “We've actually been contacted by a couple of other [government] entities asking if we'd sell them some.”

The 26 inches of snow measured last month at Toledo Express Airport broke a 49-year-old record for Toledo, and the 18.3-degree average daily mean temperature was the second coldest for December in recorded history.

Road crews were busy for most of the month: snow fell on 21 days, including eight days of an inch or more and eight days with at least a tenth of an inch.

Mr. Earley told the Lucas commissioners that the department has exceeded the average winter use of about 10,000 tons, with January - typically the peak month for snow and ice control - just getting started. He conceded that he does not have a supplier secured for the replenishment he requested, but he wants approval so he can buy when a source is located.

In Williams County, officials are relying on the Ohio Department of Transportation to help out after being told by their contract supplier that more salt may not be available from IMC Salt of Overland Park, Kan.

“There's a real good chance we won't receive any more,” said Will Allomong, the operations manager for the Williams County engineer's office. “I think I've got my bases covered with my local ODOT garage, but that's only good as long as their supply lasts.”

Joe Rutherford, a spokesman at the department of transportation district office in Bowling Green, said that, so far, there has been no indication of problems for the state's salt suppliers.

Crews at the district's nine garages have spread 38,000 tons of salt so far this season, nearly as much as the 45,000 tons used all of last winter, and have 19,000 tons on hand, Mr. Rutherford said.

The Michigan Department of Transportation reported a substantial increase in its salt consumption, but spokeswoman Kari Debnar said that, so far, suppliers have issued no supply warnings.

A forecast spell of warmer weather should help salt companies catch up on their deliveries, and it will give the Ohio Department of Transportation a chance to make headway against a growing plague of potholes on Toledo-area freeways, Mr. Rutherford said. Motorists should expect delays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the patching crews are out, he said.

Steve Briggs, IMC's vice president for North American sales, said the shortages are simply a matter of very high demand and limits on how much salt can be produced and transported.

While the firm typically sells 500,000 tons of salt in December, he said, last month it took orders for 2 million tons.

“We'll do everything that we can to get product to them,” Mr. Briggs said. But IMC is contractually obligated to maintain stockpiles for customers that have not yet used up all the salt they ordered at the beginning of the season, he said - “we can't sell that out from under them.”

Those who can find salt to buy are paying more for it. Mr. Earley said the price of road salt has jumped from $24 per ton last fall to $38 per ton now.

If the city were to exhaust its remaining stockpile, the 55,000-ton total for the winter would easily be a record, Mr. Franklin said.

The only time the city ran out of salt, he said, was during the winter of 1978, Toledo's snowiest ever.

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