December 2, 2013

Maine’s road salt comes from unexpected places

Suppliers of one of the world’s most abundant minerals described a complex chain that begins in a Chilean desert and ends at the base of your driveway.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

“Our product,” Mary Kay Warner said, “is very pure.”

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WINTER ROADS: Skowhegan Highway department employees Jason Kirk, in truck, and Duane Whittemore fill up at the town sand shed to treat roads with a mixture of sand and salt on Tuesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Salt by the numbers

In addition to melting icy roads, salt, a $1.8 billion national industry in 2011, has a significant impact on the economy in Maine, which has snowier winters and more roads per person than any other state in the Northeast.

In the larger picture, less salt is being produced in the United States and more salt is being produced elsewhere in the world.

The Geological Survey also tracked the global salt production from 1970 to 1990 and found that worldwide production increased from 146 million tons to about 190 million tons in that time period. Over the same period, U.S. production fell, from 42 million tons to 37 million. Domestic production of salt continues to decrease today, with an 11 percent drop between 2011 and 2012.

By contrast, the amount of salt produced in Chile was 4.4 million tons in 2007 and has risen nearly every year since then, to nearly 10 million tons in 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The amount of salt the United States imports from Chile fluctuates each year, but the overall trend is an increase, from 1.3 million tons in 1998 to 5 million tons valued at $102 million in 2011, the most recent year on record. That rivals Maine’s entire nonfuel mineral production industry, mostly sand and stone, which was valued at $125 million in 2009.

The amount of salt that flows into Maine from other countries also can be measured in USGS data tracking salt imports by customs district. In Maine’s customs district, which is based in Portland, 708,000 tons were imported in 2010, worth $12.3 million; while 891,000 tons were imported in 2011, worth $18.4 million.

The amount of salt traveling through Portland has fluctuated over the past 15 years. In 2007, less than a thousand tons were imported, worth just $51,000. The following year is the highest in more than a decade; in that year, 2008, 1.3 million tons were imported, at a value of $20.4 million.

While environmental concerns have fueled efforts to reduce the amount of salt used, the largest determining factor in how much salt Maine uses in any given year continues to be the weather, with added snowstorms leading to added demand.

— Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

Warner, who has been working in the road salt industry since 1997, is devout when it comes to salt. Describing her company’s product, she could have passed for a character on Breaking Bad, the television series about a talented crystal meth manufacturer.

“It’s very, very pure,” she said. “99.4 percent.”

Warner works in the communications department of International Salt, one of a handful of companies that jockey for position in Maine’s multimillion-dollar road salt market.

Salt is spread over thousands of miles of Maine roads to keep them clear and safe during the winter months. The state’s salt industry is large and will likely grow, with a new bagging factory expected to reach full capacity in South Portland this month.

Warner never used to think about where her salt came from.

“It was just something you went to the hardware store and purchased and spread on the ground, and it did its job,” she said.

But Warner’s eyes have been opened to the complexity of a supply chain that stretches halfway around the world, with a million moving parts that extract, transport, regulate and distribute small crystals at the heart of a big business.

If you put Maine’s entire population on one side of a scale, and put one year’s worth of road salt on the other, the salt would weigh more — about four times more, at an estimated billion pounds of salt each year, according to a 2010 University of Maine study.

“It was like, ‘Wow, all of this goes into this one product,’” Warner said. “It’s quite an amazing process.”

Meanwhile, Maine’s domestic salt industry is about to get a boost.

This winter, much of International’s salt will be processed at a newly completed factory at 1 Lincoln St., South Portland. The 28,000-square-foot building, which is really a fabric skin pulled tight over a galvanized steel frame, like a giant tent houses a massive pile of salt available for bulk purchases.

Chris Pizey, president of Lincoln Street Materials and Packaging, the company that runs the factory, said the company is new, but his trucking company has been managing the corporation’s salt supply chain in Maine for years.

Pizey said he bought the parcel of land right next to the marine terminal in South Portland with the intent of using it for convenient salt storage, but International decided to move its bagging operations from Pennsylvania to a local salt bagging operation.

Pizey said the deal, initiated over a year ago, was closed in July.

As soon as the automated bagging machinery arrives, the salt from Chile will be blended with chemical additives and sold to consumers as winter road de-icers under the names Arctic Thaw, C-Force, Halite, and Blizzard Wizard.

The automated bagging system conveys salt from bins into bags, and then stacks about a ton of bags on a pallet. Once “palletized,” the stack of bags is shrink-wrapped, tarped, shrink-wrapped again, and put on a truck headed for Home Depot, Lowes, hardware stores and other retailers.

“This thing will spit out a pallet of salt every three and a half minutes,” Pizey said. He expects to bag about 20,000 tons of salt a year at the factory, which will only keep its 10 new workers busy seasonally. He said he’ll be looking for other products to bag at the factory soon.

Where salt is born

The salt that lands on Maine’s roads is at the tail end of a journey that began long ago in a faraway land.

Specifically, 10 million years ago, where ancient seas dried up, leaving behind massive salt deposits in what is today northern Chile. International says there is enough salt in the Tarapaca Salt Flat to meet the needs of the entire world for at least 5,000 years. The salt deposit is such a significant natural resource that it was the focus of The War of the Pacific, a conflict between Chile, Peru and Bolivia that lasted from 1879 to 1884.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Staff photo by David Leaming PASS THE SALT: Skowhegan Road Commissioner Greg Dore holds a handful of some of the salt that is mixed with sand at the town sand shed. Dore said without the use of salt the roads would be more dangerous for drivers and expensive for the town to maintain roadways.


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