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Soaring road salt prices

Soaring road salt prices have Ohio cities, counties scrambling

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Skyrocketing prices for road salt have municipalities across Northeast Ohio slashing orders and hunting for other ways to keep streets and highways free of ice and snow this winter.

Among the hardest hit are 13 counties that arranged to buy salt through a partnership managed by the Ohio Department of Transportation and where Morton Salt Inc. was the only bidder for their county. Morton bid as high as $165 a ton, up from $42 last year. For another 12 counties in the ODOT program, no salt suppliers even offered quotes.

In Mahoning County, Engineer Patrick Ginnetti notified ODOT that the county can’t follow through on buying salt through the state because the price mushroomed from $27 a ton last winter to $146 this year.

“We rejected the bid,” Ginnetti said. “That would cripple our county.”

“If I spent $1.6 million on salt, I would not be able to do any other projects next year. We possibly couldn’t do any patchwork, either,” he said.

Because prices are so high, ODOT is giving Mahoning and other counties with bids over $100 a ton — all from Morton — the option of canceling or reducing the orders they placed with the state.

Normally, counties are locked in once they decide to take part in the buying collective.

This year, ODOT has nailed down contracts in just 63 counties so far. For many of the remaining counties, ODOT will open up salt contracts for bid — for a third time, agency spokesman Steve Faulkner said.

Portage County has decided to accept a $140 Morton bid but will cut its seasonal order from 8,000 to 4,000 tons.

“I don’t know of anybody who’s got that kind of money to fling around to spend on salt,” County Engineer Michael Marozzi said.

Hiram Township in Portage County also lowered its salt order, from 400 to 200 tons, when it learned the price was $108 a ton, up from $27 last winter. It plans to mix its salt with sand grit, which will make for a slower melt, meaning roads will stay icy for longer, township Trustee Jack Groselle said.

In Cuyahoga County, Cargill De-Icing Technologies was the winning bidder at $51 a ton. Parma Service Director Brian Higgins said his city can live with that price, though it’s considerably higher than last year’s $29.40. Geauga County got a quote of $55 from Cargill, up from $25 last year.

ODOT solicits bids for winter and summer deliveries for itself and each of Ohio’s 88 counties.

Cargill and Morton are the dominant vendors in Ohio. A third company, Central Salt, bid in one county this year — Clermont — and had the lowest price. Cargill and Morton usually don’t compete head-to-head in a county, prompting complaints that solo bids push prices higher.

Nevertheless, municipalities usually get lower-priced salt by being part of the statewide cooperative.

But this year, according to Groselle, areas of Ohio where Morton bid are being asked to pay three- or four-fold what they did last year. Cargill rates also are higher, more on the order of double last winter’s price, he said.

ODOT is brimming with salt supplies for itself because it ordered 545,000 tons over the summer.

“Some communities rolled the dice and they lost because they didn’t participate in the summer fill-up when they probably should have,” Faulkner said.

The picture is mixed for the Ohio Turnpike. The 241-mile toll road traverses 13 counties so it has a patchwork of salt prices through the ODOT program. Cargill prices range from $51 to $58. Morton prices are $108 to $164.

“It’s a chess game,” said turnpike spokesman Adam Greenslade. He estimated the turnpike’s salt budget will be up about $3 million this year.

“Our engineers are talking with ODOT engineers about alternative methods, maybe adding more grit and chemical treatment,” Greenslade said.

Though not as dramatic, a jump in the price of rock salt going into the 2008-2009 winter led the turnpike to increase the use of liquid de-icers and grit along some parts of the highway.

Both Morton and Cargill said prices are higher because of last year’s fierce winter, which emptied salt barns across the United States, leaving little or no carryover supplies, even as customers are making early and heavy demand for 2014 fill-ups.

Cargill’s mine in Cleveland has added a Saturday shift, the company’s other two U.S. mines are also going full throttle and Cargill is supplementing its output with Chilean salt shipped by barge up the Mississippi, spokesman Mark Klein said. Cargill De-Icing has offices in North Olmsted.

Morton spokeswoman Denise Lauer said the 2013-2014 winter depleted supplies “and created significant costs in production, sourcing, transportation and distribution, which is affecting prices this year.”

Some communities have bypassed ODOT and formed a separate partnership for buying salt. Cuyahoga County, Lakewood, Shaker Heights and nine other Cleveland suburbs will be buying salt from Cargill for $49.39 a ton this winter.

Cargill and Morton are the only two companies that mine rock salt in Ohio and make it available for commercial sale. Morton has a rock salt mine in Fairport Harbor, and Cargill’s mine is on Whiskey Island.

Sixty-one Ohio counties had solo bids by either Cargill or Morton for 2014 winter deliveries. Both companies bid in 15 counties.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine sued the two companies in 2012, accusing them of conspiring over the previous decade to keep road salt prices artificially high. A judge in Tuscarawas County Common Pleas Court dismissed a monopolization count, which was against Cargill, in April 2013.

Still remaining is a conspiracy count alleging that Morton and Cargill agreed to divide up Ohio customers by pre-determining which company would win which bid. The complaint estimates salt purchasers were overcharged $50 million statewide.


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