Allegheny County roads exposed to ice, salt supplies, work crew threat
The impending winter storm may be brief but potentially dangerous as communities struggle with dwindling supplies of road salt and Allegheny County snowplow drivers threaten to strike.
Snow mixed with freezing rain is expected to start on Tuesday evening and leave a “significant ice or snow accumulation” on roads when it ends by Wednesday's morning commute, said Brad Rehak, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Moon. Some areas could get at least a quarter-inch of ice on Tuesday night and up to six inches of snow by Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the president of Teamsters Local 249 representing about 50 workers, most of them plow and salt truck drivers, admitted the union is using the storm as leverage in its contract negotiations with the county. But he said he wants to keep his members on the job.
“I don't want to go on strike,” said Joseph Rossi Jr., president of the union.
The workers have been without a contract for 13 months and are at odds with the county over pay.
The union wants the same raises other county employees were granted — 2 percent for 2013 and 2014 and 2.5 percent for 2015 and 2016. The county offered those raises but on a delayed schedule, according to the final offer the union rejected on Sunday.
The truck drivers are responsible for plowing and salting 640 miles of road throughout the county, said Public Works Director Steve Johnson. He said in the event of a strike, the county will still keep roads clear and salted. County spokeswoman Amie Downs declined to provide details.
Some communities are conserving salt as they wait for deliveries. River ice has stalled barges carrying salt from suppliers in Louisiana, and shipments are being diverted from Ohio, New York and central Pennsylvania, said Lou Gorski, executive director of the South Hills Area Council of Governments.
“I'm waiting on 750 tons, and we only have about two or three (hundred) in stock,” said Peters public works Director Peter Overcashier. “We normally use 100 tons or so every time we go out, so we're getting to be pretty critical here.”
Communities typically do not dig this deep into their stockpiles of salt. Bob Skrak, director of PennDOT's Butler County operations, said he has never been close to using his entire allotment.
As communities drain their supplies, the price for additional salt rises. Gorski, who negotiates salt contracts for 120 Pittsburgh-area municipalities, said when one of his towns uses more than 120 percent of its estimated allotment, the price per ton goes from $57.52 to $63.27; at 140 percent, it goes to $81.62 per ton. As of last week, eight communities had exceeded the 140 percent mark, including Blawnox, Cranberry, South Fayette and Stowe, Gorski said.
“This is absolutely the worst winter we've seen,” said Shaler Manager Tim Rogers. “We plan to salt less and try to do more plowing to reduce what's on the road.”
Verona officials expect their supply to be replenished before the storm hits. In Penn Hills, an additional 3,000 tons of salt is expected to be delivered by Tuesday, said municipal manager Moe Rayan.
Pittsburgh mayoral spokeswoman Sonya Toler could not provide estimates of the city's salt stockpiles but believed that they were adequate and that scheduled deliveries were being received.
Jeannette Mayor Richard Jacobelli said the city has enough salt to get through next week, but other Westmoreland County communities are anxiously awaiting deliveries. A 400-ton shipment for Hempfield promised last week hasn't arrived. Greensburg ordered 200 tons from its supplier but received only 47 tons on Friday, city Administrator Sue Trout said.
“We're very low. We're extremely low,” she said. “We're going to start mixing our salt with anti-skid material.”
Aaron Aupperlee and Matthew Santoni are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Staff writers Stacey Federoff, Richard Gazarik, Bethany Hofstetter, Brian Rittmeyer, Bob Stiles and Patrick Varine contributed to this report.