The waves of snowstorms in much of the country have exhausted supplies of rock salt, the main tool that road crews use to melt ice and snow. Even areas with vast quantities of salt underground are having a hard time getting it onto their streets this year.
Hutchinson, Kan., calls itself "Salt City," and it's just down the road from Wichita. But days after a big storm hit recently, Wichita's busy streets were still snow-packed and icy slick.
Lindsey Durham, a Wichita middle school teacher, stood in the snow next to her dented car, describing one of many fender benders there. "It kind of sounded like I was in a sardine can for a moment," she said of the accident.
"The streets were so covered in a layer of ice and snow, and packed, though it hadn't snowed in two days," Durham said.
Wichita's deputy public works director, Joe Pajor, was just as frustrated. "We didn't have full salt on hand. We relied heavily on 100 percent sand treatment," he said.
The city has no end of sand at the public works yard, but that won't melt the snow. For that, you need salt. There's stronger stuff, such as magnesium chloride or beet juice, but salt is usually much cheaper.
"The salt has been in Hutchinson for 242 million years," Pajor said. "Now our challenge was, last week, getting it 60 miles from Hutchinson to Wichita."
That's no easy process.
Miners drop 650 feet down to the base of the salt seam, where beams of light from their headlamps cut through white dust. They go after walls of rock salt with explosives, drills and enormous grinders. These miners and machines can claw out about 3,000 tons a day. This winter, though, even that's not enough.
"We have been working 24/7 for several months now," said Hutchinson Salt Co. Manager Harold Mayo.
This winter's relentless snowstorms have depleted stockpiles and pushed the salt industry to its limit. Mayo said he gets calls from people who found the mine on the Internet, hoping it has salt. He tells them no.
"Regardless of price, we just don't have it," he said. Every chunk of salt coming off the conveyor belt is already committed and shipped not long after it reaches the surface.
Outside the mine, trucks wait to load the product, sitting idle for hours or sometimes even overnight. As a result, logistical bottlenecks drive up shipping prices. The bitter cold has also frozen major rivers and lakes, blocking barge traffic.
The price of salt delivered to Chicago, for example, has jumped as much as fivefold. Earlier in the year, a ton of rock salt would cost $50. Now, it can cost $250 or more, according to Tom Breier, who runs the distributor Ice Melt Chicago. Supply is tight, and demand surges every time there's another big storm.
Over in New Jersey, Paterson Public Works Director Chris Coke said he has used up most of his salt and can't treat the city's hilly streets effectively. In the meantime, he's working with the police department to keep people off the roads when conditions are bad.
"Our salt supply is extremely low," he said. "Dangerously low, actually."
With all this grief, why don't cities just buy more salt in the summer when it's cheap? Because it has to be kept inside, away from runoff, and most local governments don't have room to house enough salt for a crazy winter like this one. Also, salt solidifies and gets tough to handle if it sits around too long.
Back in Wichita, at least, the situation may be easing. The city is finally getting some of the salt it ordered two months ago from the mine in Hutchinson. And the forecast there calls for warmer weather — possibly ushering in the new season of potholes.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This time of year, many of us share a hobby, complaining about the weather and in turn road conditions. This winter's given us a lot of fodder, to say the least. Part of the problem is the way those snowstorms across much of the country has wiped out supplies of rock salt. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, even some places sitting on vast quantities of salt underground are having a hard time getting it onto their streets.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: When New York state, a major salt producer, declares a salt shortage, Milwaukee fights road ice with cheese brine and New Jersey breaks out the pickle juice, you know you've got a widespread salt problem. After a big storm in Wichita, Kansas two weeks ago, even busy streets were still snow packed and icy slick days later.
LINDSEY DURHAM: It kind of sounded like I was in a sardine can for a moment.
MORRIS: Lindsey Durham, a Wichita middle school teacher, is standing in the snow next to her dented car, describing one of many fender benders here.
DURHAM: I think that they were trying to stop, but the streets were so covered in a layer of ice and snow, and packed, though it hadn't snowed in two days.
MORRIS: If you think Durham's frustrated, talk to Joe Pajor, the deputy public works director here.
JOE PAJOR: We didn't have full salt on hand. We relied heavily on 100 percent sand treatment.
MORRIS: Wichita's got no end of sand here at the public works yard, but sand won't melt snow. For that you need salt. I mean, there's stronger stuff, magnesium chloride, beet juice, but salt is usually much cheaper. And Wichita's just down the road from a town that calls itself the salt city.
PAJOR: The salt has been in Hutchinson for 242 million years. And now our challenge was, last week, getting it 60 miles from Hutchinson to Wichita.
MORRIS: Well, first, you have to get the salt out of the ground.
JOHN KINCAID: We've just gone and dropped 650 feet vertical. We're at the base of the salt seam.
MORRIS: John Kincaid(ph) supervises the Hutchinson salt mine. Miners down here with head lamps, cutting beams through the white dust, go through walls of rock salt with explosives, drills and enormous grinders. These men and machines can claw out about 3,000 tons a day. But this winter even that's not enough.
HAROLD MAYO: We have been working 24/7 for several months now.
MORRIS: Harold Mayo, the manager at the Hutchinson Salt Company, says this winter's relentless snowstorms have depleted stockpiles and pushed the salt industry to its limit.
MAYO: We're getting calls from people who just found us on the Internet just hoping that we have salt. Right now we tell them no, you know. Regardless of price, we just don't have it.
MORRIS: Every chunk of salt coming off the conveyor belt here is committed and shipped not long after it sees the surface.
MAYO: We can't meet demand. The winter has hit everybody hard.
MORRIS: Trucks idle for hours, sometimes even overnight, outside the mine, waiting to load the stuff. Logistical bottlenecks drive up shipping prices. The bitter cold has even frozen major rivers and lakes, blocking barge traffic. Put it all together, and the price of salt delivered to Chicago has jumped as much as five-fold, according to Tom Breier who runs Ice Melt Chicago.
TOM BREIER: We've heard from others that it's actually run up as high as $250, or heavier, for a ton of rock salt, which is pretty outrageous when you compare that to the $50 price earlier in the year.
MORRIS: Supply is tight. And demand surges every time there's another big storm.
CHRIS COKE: Our salt supply is extremely low, dangerously low actually.
MORRIS: Chris Coke, the public works director in Patterson, New Jersey, says he's willing to pay serious premium for salt. But the shortage isn't spread evenly. Kansas City, Missouri, is selling. Mayor Sly James says the proceeds will help cover his city's snow removal bill.
MAYOR SLY JAMES: People are calling to us to buy our salt - other cities and the state. So we're able to offset any budgetary issues by selling some of the excess that we have.
MORRIS: With all the grief running out of salt causes, you might think cities would just buy more in the summer when it's cheap, but it has to be kept inside to avoid runoff. Most local governments don't have room to house enough salt for a crazy winter like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS)
MORRIS: Back in Wichita the situation is easing. The city is getting the salt it ordered months ago. And warmer weather there may soon usher in the new season - of potholes.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.