Cold makes rock salt a hot item

Snow and low temperatures shrink supplies of ice-melting product as forecasters warn of powerful storm next week

January 31, 2009|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,frank.roylance@baltsun.com

Ice storms across a broad swath of the eastern U.S. and diminished supplies of rock salt are causing shortages of some ice-melting products in Baltimore-area stores - even as another storm brews.

"My wife and I have been to, like, 10 stores, and nada," said Michael Schwartzburg of Pikesville, who searched stores in northern Baltimore County with his wife. "No one has any salt left."

That's not true everywhere. But managers at several Baltimore-area stores said they were seeing heavy demand for salt and other snow- and ice-melting chemicals. The greatest shortages were with rock salt, in part because it is cheaper.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article Saturday about tight supplies of ice-melting chemicals, Michael Schwartzberg's name was misspelled.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

The manager of the Lowe's store on Market Street in Westminster said yesterday he had run out of rock salt. But he did have supplies of the more expensive melting chemicals, such as calcium chloride.

Karen Cobb, a spokeswoman for Lowe's, blamed bad weather stretching back to last summer.

"Salt used for making rock salt and ice melt has been in tight supply this season due in part to last year's hurricanes in Texas and Louisiana flooding many of the mines that furnish salt," she said. When the storms moved inland, they disrupted barge traffic that moves the products on the Mississippi River.

Now, "waves of winter storms created unusually high demand," Cobb said. "We are getting ice melt and salt from suppliers and shipping the product directly to Lowe's stores as quickly as possible. The supply continues to be tight, though."

As many Marylanders searched for chemicals to rid their walks and drives of ice from Tuesday's snow and freezing rain, forecasters warned of a powerful storm expected to spin out of the Gulf of Mexico early next week, just as bitter cold drops south out of Canada on Monday.

Depending on the storm's track, forecasters said, it could drop up to 2 inches of rain on the Baltimore area, or deep snow if it passes farther east off the coast. Yesterday, the forecast track seemed to be edging farther offshore, increasing chances of snow here.

Customers at the Home Depot store on Industry Lane in Cockeysville yesterday afternoon were piling bags of snow melt and sand into their carts.

Jennifer King, a spokeswoman for the company's northern district, said store managers in the Baltimore area were "doing everything they can to replenish supplies as quickly as possible."

"Demand is really high right now," she said, especially in the wake of severe ice and snow from Texas to Maine this week. "We're trying to get supplies to the impacted areas as fast as possible."

Vic Weidman, manager of the Wal-Mart store on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills, said, "Our initial order of rock salt and ice-melt all came in, and our supply was fine through this past storm. But we ran out of stock and we're getting replenished," perhaps this weekend.

For store managers, predicting winter weather and demand for salt in advance is a gamble.

"I'm just about to run out," said Rick Edie, manager of the Kefauver True Value store on Jarrettsville Road in Forest Hill.

"In an economic scenario such as we're in," he said, "you can play it close to the vest and order based on what you anticipate will happen, or you do a tractor-trailer load" and risk getting stuck with it. Buy more than you can sell and the stored salt can "get solid on you" in the bags.

With a new storm coming, Edie has to guess again.

"Then the scenario is: Will it be similar to what we just went through [with ice]? Or, is it a snow scenario? Then it's snow shovels and other products, and your salt is not as much in demand."

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