Deep beneath the world’s largest supply of fresh water lays an abundance of one of its most essential minerals: salt.
But while Great Lakes water is in demand year-round, the need for the rock salt mined at seven locations in New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario can vary from year to year, depending on winter weather.
Right now — with the Great Lakes region as a whole in the midst of its roughest winter in at least two decades, and Toledo pushing toward an all-time record snowfall — salt companies are selling every ton they can lift out of their mines to snow and ice-weary highway agencies desperate to replenish stockpiles.
“All of our assets in the United States are at maximum output, maximum capacity,” Jim Vincent, vice president of operations for Morton Salt, said Friday.
Between October and January, he said, Morton shipped three times as much salt as it did during that part of the previous season.
“It’s been a very challenging situation for our mines and our stockpiles,” Mr. Vincent said, noting that besides salt from mines in Fairport, Ohio, and Ojibway, Ont., Morton has sent bargeloads of Louisiana salt up the Mississippi River to fill Midwestern orders.
A spokesman for Cargill Salt, which since 1997 has operated Ohio’s other major rock-salt mine in Cleveland, painted a similar picture.
“The unprecedented winter across the Snow Belt has led to huge demand for road salt,” Mark Klein said in an email interview. “We are working overtime in our mines to try to keep up with the demand.
“In addition to widespread demand, the weather is affecting transportation, slowing trucks, trains, and barges,” Mr. Klein added.
ODOT bid request
Both company representatives declined to discuss, however, whether their firms would respond to an Ohio Department of Transportation request for bids to provide emergency salt deliveries to any or all of seven state stockpiles that would be made available to local and county agencies whose supplies are dwindling.
“As with most winters, our priority has to be with customers who sought bids from us and gave us the contracts,” Mr. Klein wrote. “As any new solicitation would be under competitive bids, I’d prefer not to let our competitors know if we will or won’t.”
Steve Faulkner, a spokesman at ODOT headquarters in Columbus, said the department’s goal is to arrange for 10,000-ton deliveries to each of the seven stockpiles once during each of three 10-day periods between mid-February and mid-March. One stockpile will be at ODOT’s Wood County maintenance garage in Bowling Green.
That salt would be available to counties, townships, and municipalities on the verge of running out. Any agency taking the salt would have to pledge to deliver a matching quantity back to ODOT once supplies are more readily available, Mr. Faulkner said — essentially, an IOU for salt.
Among communities that could be interested is Ottawa Hills, where Village Administrator Marc Thompson said this week that trucks are loaded and the 120-ton capacity salt shed is full — but that’s it.
“We are like many places — we’re beginning to conserve salt,” Mr. Thompson said. “If we were in late March right now, I would not be worried, but it’s early February. I’ve been contacting supply companies, without any luck at this point.”
Other northwest Ohio communities with which ODOT has had salt discussions include Waterville, Bowling Green, Republic, Hicksville, Van Wert, and Lima, Mr. Faulkner said, along with the Lucas, Henry, and Williams county engineers and Bowling Green State University.
But the extent to which ODOT will get bidders for its plan remains to be seen.
Mr. Faulkner said the department is optimistic that, by about two weeks from now, salt producers will have caught up on backlogged delivery contracts and be able to start filling new orders.
“We’re hearing a lot of them could be caught up,” the ODOT spokesman said.
The purpose of breaking the program up into 10,000-ton lots, he said, is to maximize the potential response.
“This gives them [suppliers] the ability to [work] piecemeal, where we don’t think they could fill a single large order,” Mr. Faulkner said.
If the state were to receive acceptable bids for all seven delivery points during each 10-day period, that would add up to 210,000 tons of salt available for distribution. Mr. Faulkner said state officials’ hope is that at least 150,000 tons will be secured through the process.
Besides Morton and Cargill, ODOT has solicited bids from Detroit Salt Co. and North American Salt Co., which operate or are affiliated with mines in Detroit and Goderich, Ont., respectively.
Together, those four firms account for six of the seven rock-salt mines in the Great Lakes region; the seventh, in Hampton Corners, N.Y., south of Rochester, is operated by American Rock Salt Co.
Origins of salt
All tap into a massive vein of salt more than 1,000 feet below the surface that sprawls from western New York and central Pennsylvania across the lower Great Lakes nearly to Lake Michigan’s Wisconsin shore, according to the Salt Institute, a trade organization.
Along with rock-salt mines, this deposit — believed to have been left behind when a giant inland sea evaporated 400 million years ago — is exploited through wells that bring up salty brine that is then dried for use as table salt or for other purposes.
Salt springs near Syracuse, N.Y., and southeast of Cleveland were surface evidence of the deposit’s presence as Colonial settlers moved west, but its western extent was discovered mainly as a result of gas prospecting.
Morton’s Fairport mine, about 35 miles east of Cleveland, runs about 2,000 feet below the surface, while its Ojibway mine, south of Windsor along the Detroit River, is 1,000 feet deep. Cargill’s Cleveland mine digs about 1,700 feet below Lake Erie’s surface, while the Detroit Salt Co. tunnels are also about 1,000 feet beneath parts of the Motor City’s southwest side and neighboring suburbs.
All except for the Detroit and Hampton Corners mines operate primarily below bodies of water, which gives those operators the advantage of having to negotiate mineral rights mainly with state or provincial governments instead of numerous surface landowners.
The Great Lakes and Detroit River mines also have ready access to ship transport, whereas the others are dependent on trucks or trains.
While the deposits are nowhere close to running out, those companies’ abilities to lift salt out of the mines constrains the amount they can sell. “In general, all mining is limited by the ability to bring product to the surface,” Mr. Vincent said.
Mr. Klein said Cargill recently had spent $13.8 million to expand its Cleveland mine’s production capacity, but declined to discuss how much additional capacity that created.
In 1994, when Akzo Nobel Salt Inc. owned the Cleveland mine, its annual capacity was about 2.2 million tons, and an expansion project was forecast to boost that to 3.2 million tons.
The two recent warm winters left salt stockpiles so flush that Morton, among others, curtailed production and furloughed miners last spring.
“We had reductions, particularly in Ohio, but fortunately we’ve been able to recall all those folks,” Mr. Vincent said, adding that the recalls started in October, long before this winter’s severity was known.