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City workers load a truck with road salt at a storage facility in Toronto on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Officials in Toronto ordered enough salt last spring to cover at least 10 storm events. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
City workers load a truck with road salt at a storage facility in Toronto on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Officials in Toronto ordered enough salt last spring to cover at least 10 storm events. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Dash for salt: Cities scramble to find this winter’s hottest commodity Add to ...

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.

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“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.

“We can’t be shovelling salt out the back door and making money off it,” said Denzil Minnan-Wong, a Toronto councillor and chair of the public works and infrastructure committee.

After Mr. Paul approached Niagara Falls, Marianne Tikky, the city’s manager of roadways, sent an e-mail to her staff, telling them to turn away any municipality or private contractor looking for salt.

“It’s not that we wouldn’t want to help our neighbouring municipalities,” Ms. Tikky said in an interview. “But we just don’t know what we’re going to get for the rest of this winter because it’s been so up and down.”

Like Toronto, Niagara Falls buys more salt than it needs and places its order well ahead of time. Officials ordered enough salt last spring to cover at least 10 storm events – days when more than eight centimetres of snow fall and the entire city needs to be plowed. If the city based this season’s order on the past two relatively balmy winters, when there were only two storm events, Ms. Tikky said, it would have run out of salt early in the season.

As a result of the salt shortage in Hamilton, city staff are checking inventory daily and just salting priority, high-volume roads such as the Lincoln M. Alexander Parkway, Mr. Paul said. For other roads, the city is converting to a so-called pickle mixture – a blend of salt and sand. He said he will also recommend to his superiors that Hamilton negotiate contracts similar to Toronto’s, which contain penalties if a supplier cannot deliver salt.

In Northern Ontario, the city of Timmins announced in mid-January that it was reducing its salt use by 15 per cent over the next six to eight weeks. Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin said his bordertown has put some salt aside in case the Peace Bridge authority runs low after diverting some of its supply to the city of New York.

In the United States, the delivery of salt has been complicated by a decades-old maritime law, which prevented a barge from shipping a load from Maine to New Jersey to replenish depleted reserves. After New Jersey officials failed to get a waiver to the Maritime Act, which requires any shipment going directly from one U.S. port to another to be carried on vessels built in the U.S. and operated by an American crew, help finally arrived. The vessel Paquis, laden with road salt, arrived in Port Newark just over a week ago from Chile.

The unusually harsh winter is also taking a toll on municipal budgets. In the first two months of the latest budget year, Toronto spent half of its $80-million budget for snow removal for 2014. Niagara Falls burned through 70 per cent of its budget for salt and other winter materials.

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley joked in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that his city should follow Rodney Apple into the black market to help defray mounting winter maintenance bills.

“Maybe we could sell our excess salt to Rodney at triple the market value, plus ten per cent,” he wrote. “Always looking for new revenue streams!”

Follow on Twitter: @kahowlett

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