Rising temperatures will provide much-needed relief for towns running low on road salt

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Municipalities that are scraping the bottom of their salt domes to deal with the latest winter storm will have a new ally come Wednesday: warmth.

The National Weather Service was forecasting sunny skies and a high of 40 for the day, rising to the mid-50s on Thursday, a possible comfort amid the mess that was supposed to be falling overnight into this morning.

February has been cruel to road crews, with nine days of measurable snow (not including what was expected from the current storm); only five days where the mercury surpassed freezing; and an average temperature through Sunday that was 7.6 degrees below normal.

Several municipalities, including Pittsburgh, have struggled to maintain adequate supplies of road salt because their supplier, American Rock Salt, has been unable to keep pace with demand.

At least three communities -- Hempfield, South Greensburg and Hampton -- have declared emergencies, saying they had insufficient supplies to adequately treat their roads.

American Rock Salt, based in Mount Morris, N.Y., won state contracts to serve customers in 31 Pennsylvania counties this season, including Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland. Inquiries to the company on Monday were transferred to a recorded message that said salt mining is occurring around the clock.

"Our focus must remain on mining operations so we are unable to respond to requests for interviews," the recording said.

Pittsburgh operations director Guy Costa said the city was expecting delivery of 500 tons of rock salt during the day on Monday -- an amount that is about half of what typically is used to deal with 1 inch of snow. The city also expected to have 500 tons of a mixture of sand and granulated limestone, which would be sprayed with liquid calcium, a melting agent. Another 500 tons of salt was due to arrive today, he said.

But deliveries promised earlier this winter have not materialized or have been smaller than what the city requested, he said.

The contracts with American Rock Salt require municipalities to reserve a certain tonnage for the season, but allow them to actually take delivery of as little as 60 percent of the amount reserved or as much as 140 percent, all at a locked-in price. Communities in Allegheny County pay $54.77 per ton.

"Unfortunately, we can't control how much they deliver," Mr. Costa said. The city's only recourse would be to cancel the contract, which would be the equivalent of rubbing salt in one's own wounds.

Mr. Costa said he thinks the city should line up two salt vendors for next winter.

The city bought 300 tons of salt from the Pennsylvania Turnpike last week, and used it all on Saturday, he said. Earlier in the winter, it got a loan of salt from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which also has lent supplies to New Castle and the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

PennDOT spokesman Steve Cowan said the department had adequate supplies on hand to deal with today's expected storm.

"It's tough to say what the rest of the winter will bring," he said.

Allegheny County had 1,200 tons of salt and will focus on hills and intersections and "be judicious" in its use, according to a statement from County Manager William D. McKain and public works director Steve Johnson.

The county has orders in for more salt and is receiving shipments daily, albeit in smaller quantities, they said.

"We are ready as we can be [for today's storm]. ... The warm days on Wednesday through Saturday are welcome and will provide much-needed relief in this effort. We don't anticipate being able to help other communities at this time, but we continue to monitor our deliveries, quantities and anticipated needs on a daily basis, and if that changes will certainly assist," they said.

Through Sunday, Pittsburgh had just over 54 inches of snow. The normal total for an entire winter season is 42 inches.

The snow has come mostly in small bursts. In January, 17.9 inches was spread over 12 separate days, and this month's 11.9 inches has spread itself over nine days.

"This is my 25th year in public works," Mr. Costa said, "and I've never seen it this bad."

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1868 or on Twitter @pgtraffic.

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