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Latest winter storm hits as Pittsburgh struggles with salt shortage

| Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, 6:36 p.m.
A delivers a load of anti-skid materials to outside of the mostly empty salt dome at the intersection of Woodruff Street and Route 51 on Feb. 17, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
A delivers a load of anti-skid materials to outside of the mostly empty salt dome at the intersection of Woodruff Street and Route 51 on Feb. 17, 2014.
The interior of the mosly empty salt dome at the intersection of Woodruff Street and Route 51 February 17, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The interior of the mosly empty salt dome at the intersection of Woodruff Street and Route 51 February 17, 2014.
Scott Morrison of Unity Township uses a highlift to mix anti-skid stones with a fresh shipment of salt on Monday, Feb. 18, 2014, at Unity Township Municipal Building. About 100 tons of salt was received from Belle Vernon, said Mike O’Barto (right), chairman of the supervisors.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Scott Morrison of Unity Township uses a highlift to mix anti-skid stones with a fresh shipment of salt on Monday, Feb. 18, 2014, at Unity Township Municipal Building. About 100 tons of salt was received from Belle Vernon, said Mike O’Barto (right), chairman of the supervisors.

Pittsburgh had a fraction of the salt it needed to combat an overnight storm that was expected to dump as much as 4 inches of snow and sleet on a winter-weary city, the city's operations chief said.

The National Weather Service said roads would be hazardous and issued a travel warning, as did some municipalities. “It'll be slippery,” meteorologist Rodney Smith said.

The city's Department of Public Works responded by taking steps to make the salt it has last longer, mixing 500 tons it received on Monday with liquid calcium and 500 tons of crushed limestone and sand, Chief Operations Officer Guy Costa said.

He blamed the salt shortage on the city's supplier, American Rock Salt. Based in upstate New York, the company serves hundreds of municipalities, school districts and nonprofits in 31 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, many of which are as salt-starved as Pittsburgh.

“We're not happy that we place orders and we don't receive what we order, or they don't deliver at all,” Costa said. The city is considering contingencies for 2015 that include enlisting a backup supplier.

American Rock Salt issued a statement saying it is working “24/7 to address this current emergency,” and is unable to respond to media inquiries about contracts, supply levels or mining operations.

“We have been coordinating efforts with local and state governmental officials and agencies throughout this winter's storm activities to maintain public safety to the extent feasible,” the company said.

The city paid American Rock Salt nearly $2.5 million for salt this winter.

Allegheny County, which receives its salt from the company, is watching its supplies closely, according to Public Works Department Director Steve Johnson. American Rock Salt's supply is depleted, he said, and the company is relying on recently mined salt to supply customers.

Costa said city crews were to start plowing as soon as the snow hit around midnight and conserve salt for hills, curves and school zones until the morning rush began.

“We're going to be using 1,000 tons where we'd typically use 3,000 tons (of salt),” Costa said. About 1,000 tons of salt is needed for every inch of snow.

This year, the city ordered 45,000 tons at a cost of about $55 per ton. Costa said the order was based on National Weather Service predictions of 44 inches of snow. About 55 inches have fallen so far.

The city plows about 1,200 miles of streets, including about 120 miles of state roads that run through the city. It has an agreement with Allegheny County to plow county roads including Potomac and Crane avenues and McMonagle Road, all in the Banksville area. The county, in turn, plows East Carnegie for the city.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said such agreements prevent county plow drivers from criss-crossing the county, but there is room for improvement.

“I'm sure after this winter, there might be discussion about how we can do it more efficiently,” he said.

County Councilman Jim Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, has been a vocal critic of the plowing the city does for the county. He said the city often leaves Potomac and Crane avenues and McMonagle Road — all in his district — unplowed and unsalted.

“Would I want my roads back? Yes, I want my roads back,” Ellenbogen said.

Costa said the city “pays close attention to the streets.”

“We have not received any complaints from the county,” he said. “If they're not happy with us, they need to let us know.”

Lori Roman, president of The Salt Institute, a trade organization, said it recommends municipalities keep a year's worth of inventory on hand before the first snowfall, based on their most severe snow season. “Snowfighting,” Roman said, is a technical process, in which the amount of salt laid down on roads depends on weather conditions, traffic patterns and pavement temperature.

“The best thing to do is make the investment and be sure it is on hand,” she said.

This year even those who followed that advice may be running low. Bad road conditions and frozen rivers have, at times, hampered salt deliveries, she said.

Allegheny County has about 1,200 tons of salt, Johnson said, and he expects to receive an average of 220 tons of salt each day from American Rock Salt. Fitzgerald said that should be enough for the 640 miles of road the county plows, about half the city's workload.

Hempfield and Murrysville in Westmoreland County issued voluntary travel advisories urging residents to limit driving to essential purposes.

Bob Bauder and Aaron Aupperlee are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Bauder at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com; reach Aupperlee at 412-320-7896 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com. Staff writers Melissa Daniels and Rossilynne Skena Culgan contributed to this report.

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