Brutal winter puts strain on road salt supplies

A city plow clears a residential street in the Bucktown neighborhood February 2, 2011, in Chicago, Illinois. 
Scott Olson/Getty Images

With even more snow expected to blanket the Midwest and Northeast Tuesday evening, an already bad road salt shortage for many towns and counties is likely to get worse.

In the Chicago area, the continuous cleanup efforts from a brutal winter have been creating problems for some towns and cities that are running low on road salt, CBS Chicago reports.

Since Chicago already has seen more than 52 inches of snow this winter – more than double the average for this time of year – the road salt supply has been greatly diminished in the city and suburbs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has insisted Chicago will have enough road salt for the rest of the winter.

“We will always have the salt we need to do the job we need to do,” Emanuel said. “The city … has never come to a standstill, continues to operate, and our streets are plowed and passable, and everybody’s able – from business to residents to the commercial interests – to be able to operate.”

However, some suburbs already started cutting back on salting roads when they get snow, because of dwindling supplies. That’s a concern, because the spring thaw cycle often requires more salt for roads than the middle of winter.

It’s not just the amount of snow that’s causing a problem. Transportation delays from salt suppliers also have been an issue, with barges that deliver the salt getting stuck in icy rivers.

In Aurora, city crews already have used 13,500 tons of salt, about the same amount they used the entire winter of 2012-13. Naperville crews already used nearly four times what they used last year at this time. Oak Park and Elgin spread more than 75 percent of what they used all last winter, and far more than the typical winter at this point.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation says it's supplied about 6,000 tons of road salt to municipalities that have run short this winter.

Westmoreland County, just east of Pittsburgh, experienced such a bad crisis that they were “only salting hills and bad intersections, bends,” reports CBS Pittsburgh.

The Pennsylvania highway department said it is confident in its supply, as its stock stood at about 382,000 tons, with some 145,000 tons still to be delivered.

In an average winter, PennDOT goes through about 800,000 tons, but this year's series of storms has the department going through road salt more quickly than usual.

So far this season it's loaned salt to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Castle and the suburban Philadelphia community of Upper Gwynedd Township.

PennDOT starts each winter with more than 500,000 tons on hand.