Delivery of road salt falling short across Western Pennsylvania

Snowfall outpaces deliveries by barge

Penn Township in Westmoreland County ordered 500 tons of rock salt Jan. 21, 500 more Jan. 23 and 500 more Jan. 30, for a total of 1,500 tons. As of Friday, only 350 tons -- less than enough to deal with two typical accumulating snowstorms -- had arrived.

The township is not alone. Communities throughout the state and across the Midwest and Northeast are struggling to keep up with a winter that has gnawed away at their salt supplies.

There is no shortage, according to one major supplier. The problem is twofold: recurring snowfalls, none of them blizzards but with enough accumulation to require road treatment, and bitter cold that has iced rivers and slowed the progress of barges carrying salt to depots.

"We have plenty of salt," said Peggy Landon, director of corporate communications and investor relations for Compass Minerals, parent of Kansas-based North American Salt, which ships rock salt to 5,000 destinations in North America. "It's being transported every single day."

The company typically delivers an initial supply to river depots, then continues to ship throughout the season, she said.

"In a typical winter, it works great. But the weather [this year] is hitting faster than our barges are arriving. We have barges on the rivers in all stages of delivery."

Bruce Light, township manager in Penn, is frustrated because he has been unable to find out from its supplier, American Rock Salt, when the next delivery will be made. The township has about 300 tons on hand but needs to hold some of it back for extraordinary circumstances like fires or water main breaks, he said.

The amount needed for each storm varies, but a typical snowfall of a few inches will consume about 200 tons, he said.

Neighboring communities that also buy from American Rock Salt under a state cooperative-purchase program are having the same trouble, Mr. Light said. No one at the company, which is based in New York state, could be reached Friday.

Hempfield has advised residents that it needs to conserve salt, using it primarily on hills and curves and at intersections. Rather than spreading 400 tons in a typical storm, it is using only about 175 tons per storm now, said Andrew Walz, township manager.

"We are definitely having a hard time" getting information from American Rock Salt, he said. "We really can't plan for an impending storm because we don't know when deliveries are coming."

A shipment of 300 tons showed up Thursday. "It's nice to have. It definitely eases our concerns going into this weekend," Mr. Walz said. "But it's not enough."

More than 1,500 Pennsylvania municipalities buy their salt through a cooperative program called COSTARS, administered by the state Department of General Services. The program staff has heard from numerous communities throughout the state about shortages, spokeswoman Holly Lubart said.

"Bad weather has created an unprecedented demand for road salt" that has caused shortages in Pennsylvania and several other states, she said. Frozen waterways have delayed shipments.

"Remarkably cold temperatures have taken their toll on the Three Rivers region, and unprecedented ice accumulation has created treacherous river conditions for commercial vessels," the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Unit said in a statement Friday. "Ice conditions continue to pose a major obstacle for the commercial towing industry in transporting barged cargo along the waterways."

Gov. Tom Corbett has issued a waiver that increases the amount of time that truck drivers who are delivering salt can be on the road between rest breaks. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission are working with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to get salt to communities in dire need, Ms. Lubart said.

PennDOT District 11, which maintains state roadways in Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, has shared its supply with the cities of Pittsburgh and New Castle, spokesman Steve Cowan said.

"We're in good shape here in District 11," he said. "We have supplies on hand and we're getting salt on a regular basis. But you just never know how it's going to hold out if we continue to have this crazy weather."

National Weather Service records show that the area has had 24 days with snowfalls of a half-inch or more this season, compared with 15 at this time a year ago.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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