Local Officials Join The Great Salt Rush

THE winter of 1994 has sent states and cities back to the salt mines. They're desperate for road salt. Suppliers, who predict a record year, are struggling to keep up.

``Our people are pulling their hair out,'' says Richard Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute in Alexandria, Va.

North American salt mines have stepped up production. Companies are importing far earlier than usual from producers like the Bahamas, the Netherlands Antilles, Mexico, and Chile. Some salt, normally used to condition water, is finding its way onto American streets and highways.

``We are fighting it as if we're fighting a war,'' says Catherine Bolton, director of corporate communications for Akzo Salt Inc., based in Clarks Summit, Pa. ``Our executives get together two to three times a day to discuss where the next front is.''

The problem is that storm fronts have been almost everywhere lately. Production isn't the problem. This year, Akzo has mined 50 percent more salt than usual. But the same weather fueling demand is also hampering deliveries. Abnormal cold has meant that Akzo turns around trains in 18 days instead of the usual 12 (the rail-car couplings freeze). Icy rivers have kept salt-laden barges from reaching Chicago. Salt trucks have had to drive the same hazardous roads as everybody else.

Before the winter season started, Cargill Salt Division had more than 1 million tons of road salt stockpiled at 20 terminals from North Carolina to New Hampshire. Today, ``it's close to being a sold-out situation,'' says spokesman Greg Lauser. ``We've had people who don't have contracts with us call and say: `I don't care how much it costs, load me a 100-unit train.' '' The company has refused. Even with its Lansing, N.Y., mine working 24 hours a day, it's having problems keeping regular customers happy.

Road salt has limited usefulness. It doesn't work much below 20 degrees. But state highway crews are desperate for the stuff.

Maryland is down to 10 percent of its winter's supply. Pennsylvania is so low it called out the National Guard and hired private truckers for a three-day salt convoy this past weekend. The 175-truck fleet traveled directly to Akzo's Retsof, N.Y., mine to get salt. New York is also sending its state trucks there, bypassing the company's distribution points. Both states have waived weight restrictions for trucks carrying salt.

``It's sort of relentless,'' says Nancy Hobor, spokeswoman for Morton International, of the winter of '94. Morton's famous line is: ``When it rains, it pours.'' So what happens when it snows? ``I'll call you back,'' Ms. Hobor says.

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