2012-04-19 / Local & State

Mild Winter Leaves Pa. With Huge Salt Stockpiles

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Communities that struggled with road salt shortages during recent harsh winters that sent demand and prices soaring are now dealing with the opposite problem – huge stockpiles of the material following an unusually mild winter season.

Some communities have salt piled to the roofs of maintenance sheds, garages and – in at least one case – a former railroad tunnel. Others still have to buy hundreds of tons of salt to meet minimum purchasing requirements in the contracts they signed, but have little or no room to store it.

“We couldn't take another grain of salt if we wanted to,” Tom Hartswick, manager of Castle-Shannon borough in Allegheny County, told the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review.

The National Weather Service says the past winter was one of the warmest in Pittsburgh since at least 1871, with the city receiving more than a trace of snow only twice since March and just two dozen times since two days before Halloween.

“Throughout much of the country, it just wasn’t a winter,” said Mark Klein, spokesman for Clevelandbased Cargill Inc., which supplies many local municipalities with salt. He said lack of demand prompted the company to lay off more than 10 percent of the workers at salt mines in New York and Louisiana.

More than 100 municipalities in Allegheny and Butler counties buy salt collectively through the South Hills Area Council of Governments.

Under the contract, they must buy at least 80 percent of the salt they order annually. During harsh winters, the contract allows them to buy 25 percent more salt than ordered at the original per-ton price. Other communities take part in a state joint purchasing program requiring them to buy at least 60 percent of their original orders.

Communities participating through the South Hills Area Council of Governments program collectively ordered 157,000 tons last winter at a rate of $53.83 a ton, – down from more than $100 a ton a few winters ago, according to Louis Gorski, the executive director. Under the contract, they were required to buy at least 125,600 tons, and Gorski said the amount of salt delivered is “running substantially lower than 80 percent” because it wasn’t needed.

“Our storage bins are full,” Whitehall Manager James Leventry said of the borough's two bins, which hold a total of 600 tons. “We still need to order 500 tons (by contract). I don’t know where we’d put it.”

Gorski said Friday that he is negotiating with Cargill for the company to stockpile salt for communities with limited storage space. The state joint purchasing program, known as COSTARS, already has a built-in stockpiling option.

Emsworth ordered 500 tons from North American Salt Co. of Overland Park, Kan., through the state program, but is about 110 tons from the 60 percent minimum, and will pay $10 a ton to have the company stockpile the surplus salt, according to Paul Getz, president of the council.

“If we brought (the salt) out here, we’d have to cover it with tarps. No matter how well we stored it, we’d probably have less salt by the time next winter rolls around because of water runoff,” Getz said.

Getz also cited environmental concerns because of a nearby stream. In July, a water main break beneath a South Park Township storage area washed tons of salt into adjacent Peters Creek, killing hundreds of fish.

South Park's storage area is an old Pennsylvania Railroad tunnel, about 175 feet long and 20 feet high. Today, it holds about 2,000 tons of salt, which piles to the ceiling through much of the tunnel.

“We’re fortunate to have that for storage. Otherwise, I don’t know what we’d do,” township manager Karen Fosbaugh said.

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