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City officials stay optimistic in face of a salt shortage

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

For most people, August means that winter weather is a distant memory, but last year's harsh conditions have left some public works departments in Kentucky and Illinois with salt on the brain.

An icy winter depleted stockpiles of road salt last season, and the supply has yet to return to normal, according to Keith Todd, a spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet District 1.

"From the mine level all the way to the end user, there's not a lot (of salt) out there in the system," Todd said. "The supply chain is pretty well empty."

He said District 1, which consists of Ballard, Calloway, Carlisle, Crittenden, Fulton, Graves, Hickman, Livingston, Lyon, Marshall, McCracken and Trigg counties, currently has about 6,000 tons of salt; it needs to order about another 15,000 tons for the winter. The cabinet generally reorders salt in July to be delivered in August or September, when prices are at their lowest.

Snow and ice season officially begins for the cabinet on Nov. 1, and the cabinet tries to have all its storage facilities full by then, Todd added. Other solutions, such as calcium chloride mixed with sand or brine, have proven successful in treating roads when supplies are limited. 

Statewide, the transportation cabinet boasts a storage capacity of 320,000 tons. The most recent information from the cabinet's maintenance division shows the state has about 160,000 tons on hand now, KYTC spokesman Jim Isaman said.

"It was kind of a perfect storm situation, where everybody was hit and there just really wasn't enough (salt) to meet demand last year," he said. "We're glad (the 2014 season) is over with."

A press release dated March 5 reported that the cabinet had used more than 410,000 tons of salt that season, as compared with 160,000 tons at the same time in 2013.

But the cabinet isn't concerned that the shortage will affect its ability to treat roads come November, he said. If worse comes to worst, crews will stretch supplies by treating less and plowing more, "just like a regular homeowner," Isaman said.

"We'll do the best we can with what we have," he said.

The city of Paducah also used more salt last winter - 823 tons, as compared to the typical 500, to treat its 450 lane miles - said Rick Murphy, director of the public works and engineering department. But he said he's unaware of any salt shortages, and believes it's too early for the city to be worried about its supply. Like its state counterpart, the city sometimes uses a brine solution to extend the life of its salt supply.

"We're six months from needing any (salt). ... A lot can happen in six months," he said. "I'm not concerned for the city of Paducah at all."

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported earlier this week that public works departments in neighboring Illinois are scrambling to find salt vendors. More than 560 communities in that state solicited road salt bids, but only 367 of those communities received them. Municipalities that did receive bids are faced with prices ranging from $70 to more than $140 per ton, compared to last year's rates of $55 to $65 per ton, likely due to the demand.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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