Persistent snow takes heavy toll on Butler salt supplies
By Rick Wills
Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Though no “Stormageddon” has hit Butler County this winter, regular and persistent snowfalls dumped an average winter's snowfall on the area before the end of January, and municipalities are running out of salt.
“It's these Mickey Mouse snowfalls that are killing us. There has been something almost every day for weeks,” said Seven Fields borough Manager Tim Smith.
Seven Fields reserves about 400 tons of road salt each winter for treating 20 miles of roads. The borough used all of it by Jan. 24.
Neighboring Cranberry has exceeded its estimated annual allocation of road salt. The township projected it would need 4,500 tons this winter, said Jason Dailey, public works director.
The situation is much the same for PennDOT, whose 86 drivers are responsible for clearing 17,000 lane-miles of roadway in the county.
“I just do not remember anything like this,” said Bob Skrak, director of PennDOT's Butler County operations.
“We are already over what we used all of last year. We just seem to get bands and bands of lake-effect snow all the time.”
Communities make arrangements well in advance of the first snowfall to buy their salt and lock in the price, and they must tell the supplier what they expect to use. If a community goes over the estimate, it must pay more.
So far, the Cranberry has used 5,200 tons of salt.
“We still have precipitation in the forecast most days if you look at a 15-day forecast,” Dailey said.
Cranberry has an annual snow removal budget of $300,000, which includes overtime for drivers and maintenance on the township's trucks. The township's 23 public works drivers cover 14 snow routes — more than 120 miles of roads.
Dailey said crews have treated roads nearly every day since late November.
“I think there have been a number of weather events this winter. No big storms. It always seems to be 2 or 3 inches at a time,” he said.
Last year, PennDOT used 22,781 tons of salt in Butler County, spending $4.3 million to remove snow. This winter, the department has used more salt in the county than it did during the entire 2012-13 winter season, Skrak said.
Spreading lots of salt is costly.
Because PennDOT has exceeded its estimated annual salt tonnage, it is now paying about $100 per ton of salt compared to $61.60 a ton previously.
Under the contracts Cranberry and Seven Fields have with the South Hills Council of Governments, both municipalities have to pay more for a ton of salt if they exceed their annual estimate.
After they use 125 percent of their estimated annual tonnage, their contracts permit the vendor to increase its price up to 10 percent over the base price.
If a municipality's consumption reaches 140 percent of its estimated annual tonnage, the vendor is permitted a final increase that allows it to charge market price. Cranberry, which had paid $62 per ton, is now paying $87.
“The initial 125 percent threshold has been reached by many (municipalities), and some have reached the 140 percent limit,” Susan Dawson, an administrative assistant at the council, wrote to members last week.
The council's salt supplier, Cargill, the source of most of the salt for Western Pennsylvania, has had problems with river shipping from Louisiana. That's forcing the company to transport salt from central and eastern Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, which Dawson said increases shipping costs.
Heavy use of salt this winter is no surprise, said Rihaan Gangat, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon.
“We have just had a lot of clipper systems with 2 to 3 inches of snow. No big storms. But it's added up to a lot,” he said.
The heaviest daily snowfall this winter was 5.2 inches on Jan. 25.
So far this year, 42.3 inches of snow has fallen in the region.
That is the yearly average for the area and more than twice the amount of snow that typically falls by this date, Gangat said.
At one point, Seven Fields got down to just 10 tons of road salt, Smith said.
In temperatures above 17 degrees, a ton of salt will melt snow on about 4.5 miles of a two-lane road, said PennDOT's Skrak.
“We have never come close to using all of our allotment. I have never maxed out in the 10 years I have worked here,” he said.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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