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Why you should care about road salt prices in the middle of summer

Tana Weingartner
A truck picks up a load of road salt last winter. Prices this year are skyrocketing.

Temperatures are soaring, and so too are road salt prices.

It may seem odd to think about snow and ice right now but transportation departments are buying now for the winter. They're finding steep prices.

"At $45/ton, you're talking about $750,000. At $104, you're talking almost $1.7 million."

Hamilton County Engineer Ted Hubbard says the county paid $45 per ton last year. This year the county is paying $104 per ton.

"2012 wasn't that bad of a year but in 2013 we had a pretty significant winter," says Hubbard. "So we're seeing where communities want to make sure they're filled up with salt and so the suppliers are having a more difficult time supplying that material. It's supply and demand, the price has gone up."

Hamilton County will start the season with a full load. That's 16,000 tons of salt.

"At $45/ton, you're talking about $750,000. At $104, you're talking almost $1.7 million," says Hubbard.

Hubbard says, like engineers around the state, he's looking at other alternatives. Hamilton County uses grit and calcium to stretch its supplies.

A regional round-up finds similar high prices:

Montgomery County comes in highest at $113 per ton. Engineer Paul Gruner says the county participated in a buying consortium and the winning supplier can't even fill the entire order. But that's little matter when the price is so high. "We're not going to buy much salt at $113 per ton," says Gruner. "People are going to have to get used to less clear roads." He adds that Montgomery County also treats roads with beat juice and grit.

Clermont County also participated in the consortium, known as SWOP4G, or Southwest Ohio Purchasers for Government. Clermont's price is slightly less than Montgomery since the salt doesn't have to be trucked as far once it comes off the barge bringing it up the river from Louisiana. Clermont County's price is $109/ton compared to $48/ton last year. And again, the supplier can only fill ten percent of each county's order. Engineer Pat Manger says he's currently working on putting out a second bid to fill up the county's salt barns, and maybe find a better price.

Kenton, Boone and Campbell Counties each secured contracts for about $84 per ton.

Warren County checks in at nearly $77 per ton.

On the low end, Butler County locked in a contract back in May for about $67 per ton, only three bucks more than last year. Spokesman Chris Petrocy says "it pays to get your bids in early."

The City of Cincinnati also got its bids out early, securing the second lowest rate of those WVXU surveyed. Cincinnati is paying $75.86 per ton, compared to $64.02 per ton last year.

Numbers by county:

  • Butler (OH): $66.71/ton. Previous rate - $64.22
  • Boone (KY): $84.27/ton. Previous rate - $67.29
  • Campbell (KY): $84.58/ton. Previous rate - $60.50
  • City of Cincinnati: $75.86/ton. Previous rate - $64.02
  • Clermont (OH): $109/ton. Previous rate - $48
  • Hamilton (OH): about $104/ton. Previous rate - about $45
  • Kenton (KY): about $84/ton. Previous rate - about $63
  • Montgomery (OH): about $113/ton. Previous rate - $52
  • City of Oxford (OH): $66.71/ton. Previous rate - $64.22 (Included in Butler County's contract.)
  • Warren (OH): $76.82/ton. Previous rate - $57.90

Last winter was bad and road crews paid the price, both in long hours and costly salt buys. With another harsh winter predicted (by the Farmer's Almanac) and low supplies, road salt prices are skyrocketing.
Across Ohio, some counties are paying more than 200 percent more for salt this year.

The Ohio Department of Transportation buys and stockpiles salt for its own trucks for the winter. It's running into the same high prices.

“On that contract," says ODOT's Steve Faulkner, "we’re looking at some prices that, for the first time that we can remember in a long time, prices have hit more than $100 per ton in some counties and that is an issue.”

Salt companies are saying last year’s seemingly endless winter drained their inventories, so the high costs simply reflect how high the demand is compared to the limited supply. Faulkner says the state can absorb the huge cost increase a lot easier than some communities, which can have varied prices because of variable needs. So the agency is trying to work as a go-between to get a cheaper price.

Says Faulkner, “When you get a bid back that’s more than $100, what we are doing at ODOT is we’re saying to local communities, is this something that you can afford? If it is, let’s go ahead and lock it in. If not, perhaps we go to the salt companies and say, can we get a lower bid on this salt?”

But one lawmaker says he’s suspicious. Rep. Jack Cera is a Democrat of Bellaire on the West Virginia border near Wheeling. He says he’s heard of salt price increases as high as 300 percent.

“In talking with local people who’ve talked to some of these salt companies, they’ve asked that question – is it supply and demand? – and they weren’t satisfied with the answer," says Cera. "So I just think it’s something – a 300 percent increase seems pretty high no matter what the issue is.”

Cera has asked Attorney General Mike DeWine to investigate. The AG’s office says Ohio is preparing for a trial next May on a lawsuit filed two years ago against Cargill and Morton over a decade’s worth of salt prices paid by ODOT and other government entities.

The AG’s office says while it continues to monitor salt prices, it can’t comment further.