The constant pummeling of snow and record-low temperatures throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and Canada this winter made for one big quandary: shortages in rock salt, the deicing staple of public works departments far and wide.
As bad weather continued well into March, managers found it increasingly difficult to buy salt. Its availability quickly decreased as one snowstorm blended into the next, causing both economic and safety issues. Members of the Milwaukee-based Snow & Ice Management Association had to buy salt from other states.
The salt shortage has had different affects on different cities, depending on their deicing schedules and the type of material they use.
For instance, in Chicago, where the Department of Streets and Sanitation uses a mixture of brine and calcium chloride to deice, the shortage hasn't been as hard to swallow as it has been for west suburban Glen Ellyn.
Just one of dozens of suburbs suffering through a salt shortage, the village recently bought 800 tons of additional salt?at more than double the usual price of $41 per ton.
"This is Economics 101," says Glen Ellyn Public Works Director Joe Caracci, whose crews had used about 3,000 tons?more than twice the usual amount?by March. "Supply and demand is taking full force in the industry right now."
As some suppliers ran low (or ran out), others seized the opportunity to raise profits. Caracci spent an entire day in late February calling suppliers and other public agencies throughout the Midwest before finding a supplier to provide what he hoped would be enough salt for the rest of the season.He'd already gotten 50 tons from neighboring Wheaton, but it wasn't enough.
Although some agencies switched to a salt/sand mixture, others question its benefits. "We've tried very hard not to go in that direction," Caracci says, citing debris in storm sewers and increased maintenance and cleanup come spring (see article on page 37).
Some managers are considering investing in salt domes or sheds they can use to stockpile up to 3,000 tons for emergencies. Others readjusted their deicing programs to ration supplies.
Caracci, for one, cut back on the amount of time crews devoted to residential streets.
"I'd much rather have a 6-inch snowstorm than freezing rain," he says. "With snow you can plow, but with sleet?which just forms ice on roadways?you have no option other than to use the salt." His crews reduced the time they work on residential side streets, shifting to a "case-by-case basis" to focus on main arterial roads.
The weather caused problems for more than just public works departments and commuters: Salt and other deicers could also be harming wildlife.
A long-term study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed that in Milwaukee, melting agents wash into urban streams at levels that could be deadly to fish and other aquatic life.
The EPA's toxic standard for deicers in the streams is 850 ppm. On Feb. 26, 2007, the levels were so high for a period of a few hours, that Honey Creek water in Wauwatosa essentially became saline (6,470 ppm). And after trucks salted a road near Underwood Creek ahead of forecasted freezing rain Feb. 24, 2001, chloride levels jumped to nearly 11,000 ppm. Although the agencieswere not fined, local environmental groups have urged the Wisconsin Department of NaturalResources to consider chloride a pollutant.
Last year, the Wisconsin DOT used 405,000 tons of deicers; this year it expects crews to go through about 700,000 tons by the time the last flake falls.
Now managers are asking themselves whether the winter of 2007/2008 is just an anomaly, or if salt woes continue well into the future.