Despite Regional Shortages Newtown’s Winter Salt Reserves Adequate
While other communities across the Northeast are grappling with winter road salt shortages and correlating price spikes, Newtown officials say that the local Highway Department is adequately budgeted for a typical winter and is still flush with tons of salt reserves following a surprise mid-November snowstorm that took a comparatively tiny bite from a storage buildings piled to the rafters with the ice melting staple.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said long before the first frosty nights of fall hit, the Newtown Highway Department filled up its salt shed.
“So that unanticipated early storm didn’t catch us off guard,” the first selectman told The Newtown Bee. Despite Newtown’s robust stores, Mr Rosenthal said at some point before the spring of 2019, Newtown will probably be making the call to re-up on its supplies of road salt.
“They will have to restock, as they do throughout the winter,” he said.
From a budgetary standpoint, Mr Rosenthal explained that the town calculates its estimated winter maintenance spending plan based on a five year rolling average, which up until last year was diminished somewhat by one low-event year, resulting in very modest spending.
With that year no longer weighting the five-year average, Mr Rosenthal said, “We upped the allocation for winter maintenance in this year’s budget.”
In that budget, voters approved $819,535 for the winter maintenance account line, according to documentation from the Newtown Finance Office. That represented a $92,488 or 12.7 increase for 2018-19 and accounts for winter salt, sand, and overtime.
Elsewhere in the region, the Associated Press is reporting that salt supplies are tight on the heels of a harsh winter last year that depleted reserves, leaving many localities in the Northeast and Great Lakes to pay prices that range from about five percent higher to almost double.
“Everybody’s got their fingers crossed for good weather,” said Rebecca Matsco, an official in western Pennsylvania’s Beaver County, where one contract price came in at $109 a ton, 95 percent higher than last year.
The increases are frustrating to local officials who are locked into tight budgets. Some highway superintendents say they could choose to make their salt supplies last by mixing in more sand, which is cheaper.
Others say it could force them to defer other road projects — but they cannot stop salting slick roads.
“We’re directly the opposite,” said Public Works Director Fred Hurley. “Our prices have gone down. We were in the mid-$80s there for a while, but now we’re down to $71.34 per ton.”
Mr Hurley said that represents “the biggest single drop in recent years.”
Mr Hurley and the highway department took full advantage of that early season price drop, tapping Newtown’s supplier — none other than the Morton Salt Company — for more than 2,000 tons.
“Our salt shed and maintenance garage are piled to the rafters, plus we have another pile under cover,” Mr Hurley said. “And we took delivery in mid-October when demand was low and transportation costs were minimal.”
Thanks to the utilization of the five-year storm impact averages and smart planning, the Highway boss said, “We’ve come close, but we have never run out of sand and salt. In fact, we’ve had to help out other communities a couple of time.”
That planning also factored into response for the season’s first storm earlier in November.
“Our crews went out and pretreated before the first flake,” Mr Hurley said. “The state was a little late to the game so we helped them out first before we got to our roads. We even helped State Troopers who got stuck in town.”
Mr Hurley suspects that a number of residents saw firsthand how Newtown crews made a key difference on state roads like Route 34, which for a period during that storm, were only open in Newtown.
“We had the lowest number of calls from local residents in memory from this storm,” he said. “I think most people in town saw us out there.”
This first storm of the winter of 2018-19 ended up consuming 250 tons of salt — roughly costing about $18,000.
“That means we can have at least ten more storms of equal severity before we begin running low,” Mr Hurley said.
In terms of the hardware required to deliver the salt and sand when needed, Mr Hurley confirmed that everything is good in terms of equipment and trucks.
“Fortunately, we got all the birds flying during that first storm,” he said. “That really helped break up the log jams of stuck vehicles on state roads.”
Similarly to Newtown, municipal and state winter salt orders can cover thousands of tons, and the prices other localities are paying now per ton vary widely based on the supplier, volume, shipping costs, and other factors.
Production issues at two major North American salt mines have contributed to tight supplies.
Cargill is addressing a leak in a salt mine 1,800 feet under Lake Erie off Cleveland, one of three US mines the company operates. Company spokesman Justin Barber said it is working to fix leakage, but “it’s lowering our salt production capacity for this winter season.”
There also was an 11-week strike this year at the largest underground operating salt mine in the world, the Goderich mine under Lake Huron, off Ontario. Production slowed due to the strike but is now back up, said Tara Hefner, a spokeswoman for Compass Minerals.
One bright spot: Snow belt towns might get their wish for an easier winter. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an outlook last month that said conditions could be warmer and drier this winter in parts of the North.
Still, there have been a couple of early season storms already.
Saying that local highway crews “played the hand they were dealt,” regarding the earlier November storm, Mr Rosenthal assured residents that “We’re adequately budgeted even though we’re not off to a great start.
“I lament winter settling in early,” the first selectman added. “Hopefully we’re in for a normal winter, but residents can rest assured we are budgeted for a winter mildly worse than last year.”
Associated Press content was used in this report.