SEDALIA, Mo. — The dirty rocks of salt are packed into a storage shed on a snowy lot, where a nearby bulldozer, its engine on, stands at the ready. Pettis County Commissioner Brent Hampy trudges across the frozen ground to assess the stockpiles for this county, which just received 8 inches of snow in a nasty storm that closed schools for two days.
There are about 200 tons of salt left piled here, and it may not be enough. The county started out the winter with 600 tons, and last winter used only 50.
"If we don't have more ice storms we'll be fine," Hampy said, as the wind whipped his cheeks in the 11-degree chill. "But if we have two more ice storms, we're going to be out."
After a particularly nasty winter that isn't showing any signs of abating, states and counties across the country say their supplies of rock salt, which they use to make roads safe for drivers, are at an all-time low. Because the cold has spread over so much of the country, there's more demand than usual, stretching salt producers to capacity and forcing them to ration supplies. Some cities, such as Wichita, Kan., are so low on salt that they are choosing to salt only main roads, using sand for the rest.
"I think pretty much every salt mine in the country is out now, or very nearly," said Harold Mayo, general manager of the Hutchinson Salt Mine in Kansas, where much of the Midwest's salt is mined. "It's just a very unusual winter as far as demand."
The mine is producing its capacity of 3,300 tons of salt a day, but is still turning away people who call trying to buy salt, instead giving priority to places that have a contract. To others, they can offer only a different type of salt not usually used for melting ice on roads.
The shortage is also affecting consumers who use salt to make their walkways and stairs less slippery — hardware stores in Missouri and Kansas, including chains such as Big Lots and Sears, said they were out of salt, and were waiting for more to come in.
"We have seen a large demand for ice melt," said Tara Gudger, a Lowe's spokeswoman. "As the end of the winter weather season nears, we're continually working with suppliers to replenish store shelves."
Many private snowplow companies are out of salt too. Jileen Wingerter, who works at Marcum's Landscaping in Sedalia, east of Kansas City, Mo., said her firm was told it couldn't order any more because salt was too much in demand by states and cities. "We're totally out," she said.
Wichita, for instance, placed an order for 1,000 tons of salt in December, but received only 800. The city can store 6,000 tons, but has stocked only about one-third of that. It's mostly using sand for its roads, said Joe Pajor, deputy director at the Department of Public Works, though on some main routes it is using a salt-sand mix.
"We would hope that as it gets warmer we'd have the salt, but at this point we don't have any particular expectations," Pajor said.
Some places are trying to mix salt with additives to keep the roads safe. They include beet syrup, potato juice, cheese brine, tomatoes and a corn-based product to improve adhesion and reduce salt usage. The products started appearing in the late 1990s. But their use has been surging amid worries about large amounts of salt contaminating groundwater supplies.
"We can cut your salt usage by a third, saving people some money in the long run," said Mike Demaray, sales manager for Beet 55, one of the salt-spray mixer options. The sticky substance tints the snow a brownish color but can be washed off cars and clothes with soap.
Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation is trying out Beet Heet in Butler County, a product made from processed sugar beet molasses. Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee are using the same or similar products.
Meanwhile, officials are trying to move salt from places it isn't needed to places that have nearly exhausted their supplies. Two ships carrying about 50,000 tons of salt arrived Wednesday in Wisconsin to help supply communities in need.
"We have enough in the state, but just not in the right places," said Michael Sproul, an engineer with Wisconsin's winter maintenance program. Storm after storm this winter has eaten up 60% more salt than the average expended during the last five winters, he said.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, after declaring a state of emergency, directed the state Department of Transportation to move 130 truckloads of surplus salt to communities that need it. To expedite salt deliveries, the department waived federal restrictions on hours for salt truck drivers to allow them to work as long as needed until the emergency is over. The MTA also waived weight restrictions on bridges to allow larger loads of salt to move through.
But even if the shortage abates, some counties may not be ordering up more salt any time soon. That's because the demand is so high that the price has doubled, Pettis County's Hampy said.
And after a winter in which Pettis County is having to pay overtime for workers to plow, and is likely to see a higher heating bill than usual, paying twice as much for salt is not an appealing prospect.
Semuels reported from Sedalia and Dave from Los Angeles.