Dash for salt: Cities scramble to find this winter’s hottest commodity – by Karen Howlett (Globe and Mail – March 5, 2014)

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Niagara Falls is hoarding its stockpile. Hamilton is mixing its dwindling supply with sand. New Jersey is importing the scarce commodity known as white gold all the way from Chile. And sales are booming on the black market.

Road salt shortages are a continent-wide problem this winter. Long bouts of frigid temperatures and an abundance of snow have depleted reserves in parts of Ontario and the Northeastern United States faster than they can be replenished. Windsor Salt, one of three major suppliers in Ontario, is facing its highest demand in two decades. The company has shut its doors to new customers, and its three mines are working overtime to meet commitments on existing municipal contracts.

“You can’t just push the button and produce more,” said Luc Savoie, vice-president of sales and marketing.

The shortage of a crucial ingredient used to break up ice on city streets has forced many regions to ration supplies, make panic-buying calls to neighbouring communities with salt to spare and revise road maintenance budgets. The coveted mineral has even become a hot item on the black market in what amounts to war-on-winter profiteering.

Rodney Apple isn’t normally in the road salt business – he sells raw material for the steel industry from offices in South Carolina and Michigan. But this winter, he helped sell 10,000 tons of salt that an associate had sitting in a warehouse for the past three years. In an e-mail sales pitch to the city of Sarnia in Southwestern Ontario, Mr. Apple says he has 4,000 tons of road salt in Detroit available for $220 a ton, including delivery and customs.

“We kept raising the price as we sold more,” Mr. Apple said in an interview.

Sarnia turned him down. “Based on these price points, which are 3 times what we pay delivered,” a city official said in an internal e-mail, “we are not in that dire of a spot.”

It didn’t take Mr. Apple long to find other takers: companies with snow-clearing contracts in Chicago and Indianapolis. He called on the city of Hamilton last week to say he had a “good lead” on about 500 to 1,000 tons. Bob Paul, Hamilton’s acting manager of winter control, said he isn’t interested in paying Mr. Apple an “astronomical price” even though his city is close to running out of salt after going through a lot at the start of the season.

“We received a number of offers like that,” Mr. Paul said. “It was just someone looking for a quick buck.”

Hamilton’s supplier, Cargill, is operating its Cleveland salt mine under Lake Erie around the clock. But with the Welland Canal frozen, Cargill can’t ship additional salt to Hamilton by water. Mr. Paul tried to buy salt from other municipalities, only to be rebuffed.

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