Ladies ~ watch for disappearing salt shakers!
Ice-removal plans seasoned with worry of salt shortage
by Jon Hilkevitch
Getting Around - November 3, 2008 Chicago Tribune
The price of road salt is so high this winter that the state's transportation chief kids his highway engineers they might consider pocketing the salt shakers from restaurant tables when going out to eat. But it's no joking matter. An investigation into possible salt price-fixing is under way. And salt has become such a precious commodity that thieves are pilfering salt stockpiles.
Rock salt that sold last year for about $40 a ton is fetching up to $140 in the Chicago region, according to state and local highway departments.A s a result, drivers will notice changes this winter during snow operations, officials said."We no longer can plow and salt the pavement down to zero snow and ice," said Illinois Transportation Secretary Milton Sees. "We'll also use the sun to melt ice on the highway shoulders."
New policies by the Illinois Department of Transportation to conserve salt won't reduce safety, Sees vowed. But officials cautioned drivers to be especially careful after snowstorms, particularly late at night, when there will be fewer plow and salt trucks on state routes.
IDOT used about 840,000 tons of salt last winter, which was one of the snowiest seasons in 30 years. The goal this winter is to reduce consumption to between 500,000 and 600,000 tons, Sees said.
The skyrocketing salt prices have prompted an investigation by the Illinois attorney generals office into allegations of gouging by salt suppliers." Municipalities have reached out to our office with concerns about high and widely varying road salt prices," said Robyn Ziegler, a spokeswoman for Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan. "We are moving forward with the investigation." Companies that mine and process road salt say inventories were depleted after the harsh winter of 2007-08. It has caused salt shortages across the Midwest this winter, according to the Salt Institute. Salt, which once was stored out in the open, now is often inside locked salt domes. Thieves recently stole 120 tons of road salt from an Aurora storage facility, police said.
Chicago avoided the tripling of salt prices by locking into a two-year contract that runs through this winter. The city is paying $38 to $41 per ton, depending on the vendor, said Matt Smith, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation."While some suburbs ran out last year and were forced to mix in kitty litter and sand with the salt, we got a really great price and can replenish as necessary," Smith said.
Officials in Lake County have had to postpone some road improvement projects to come up with the extra money to acquire about 20,000 tons of salt for this winter. Only about half the order has been delivered. "I've heard a lot of explanations for the price jump, including that all the salt in mine storage was used up during the heavy winter last year," said Larry Savage, manager of highway operations in Lake County. "But in my 25 years with the county, salt prices have never been an issue like they are today."
Lake County is paying an average of $138 per ton of salt this winter, up from about $42 last year.Rupert Graham Jr., superintendent of the Cook County Highway Department, said he feels lucky to be paying about $122 a ton this year."Around the country there doesn't seem to be any rational reason why the prices vary from one area to another," Graham said. The Illinois Department of Transportation is paying $55 to $140 a ton, according to an IDOT spokesman.The price of salt is prompting reforms that are arguably overdue.
Salt is corrosive, reducing the life span of vehicles, roads and bridges. The rusting adds to an inventory of state transportation infrastructure that is in poor shape."The silver lining [in the high salt prices] is better salt practices. It's a good opportunity to make sure everybody knows when is the right time to salt and at what amounts," said Eric Harm, chief engineer for the highways division at IDOT.
Plow truck drivers are being retrained, and officials are making sure the salt spreaders mounted on trucks are calibrated to dispense the right amount of salt, according to IDOT. Authorities will also rely more on technology this winter, including sensors buried just beneath roadways that gauge pavement temperatures and moisture levels, before deciding whether to salt and how much, Harm said.
Other chemical mixtures will be used to stretch the salt supplies, including calcium chloride, which is more efficient than salt at lower temperatures but also more expensive, authorities said. Some highway departments also found success using denatured sugar beet juice mixed with calcium chloride and liquid salt brine to produce a slightly gelatinous substance that has an extremely low freezing point. But no strategies eliminate the need for road salt, which will be used as sparingly as possible without jeopardizing safety, officials said. IDOT spent $86.2 million in fiscal year 2008 on snow and ice operations, including about $27 million on salt."It will be a balancing act," Harm said.
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