Salt piles up in preparation for winter’s icy roads

Anyone who remembers last winter’s ice storms will hope the scenes of iced-over streets, traffic accidents and whole cities shut down will not be repeated this season.

Partly in response to such a disastrous winter, agencies nationwide have seen an increase in demand for road salt this year, and some areas are paying at least 20 percent more for salt supplies ahead of what could be another frigid winter.

But locally, maintenance crews say they have the necessary tools in place to clear the roads in case another ice storm slams South Carolina.

“We restock after every storm event,” said Brad Trout, the S.C. Department of Transportation maintenance engineer for York County. “After we get through with the snow, they start to order more. Sometimes they’re bringing new stuff in as we’re taking it out.”

DOT has salt piled high at three locations around York County, a total of 3,800 tons ready to be deployed in the event of another freeze.

The state has a three-year contract with International Salt, which ships crystals into Charleston from its large salt-mining operation in South America. From there, it’s distributed to local DOT offices across South Carolina to clear state-maintained roads for traffic. At any given time, the department has the capacity to hold up to 42,000 tons of salt.

“We try to buy at summer prices (which are lowest), but it’s an on-call contract year round,” said Mark Hunter, the assistant state maintenance engineer who handles supplies for DOT field offices. “The price is low-bid, which is usually around $100 per ton.”

The only exception is for what DOT officials call “The Dome,” a 100-by-250-square foot warehouse in Columbia that holds reserve salt supplies for the entire state. The Dome is served by a different contract and is normally serviced in November.

With all that salt secure, engineers feel prepared for another round of cold weather this year. Last January’s ice storm in South Carolina was credited with causing more than 800 traffic collisions alone. Trout said his crew of 17 to 18 service trucks did a good job this year of clearing York’s 1,400 miles of state roads, and is confident of doing the job again this winter.

“We actually loaned some stuff to Gaffney and Chester” last time out, Trout said. “We normally just cover York County, but (with responsibility for clearing the interstate) we’ve gone all the way to Blythewood.”

Still, the state has learned one lesson from last winter, and is expanding its salting capacity. DOT is building a second “Dome” between Greenville and Spartanburg they hope to have operational by the winter of 2015-16, and the city of Rock Hill has installed a second tank to hold the salt-brine it receives from DOT to clear streets locally.

“Several years ago we worked out an agreement with the state to clear some state roads (within the city limits) if we had the supply,” said Gary Wright, operations supervisor with Rock Hill’s Public Works Department.

Rock Hill’s existing tank holds 15,000 gallons of the brine – essentially a salt-water mix spread over icy streets – and the new tank could double that supply.

“The storm last year put a strain on the city,” Wright said. “We did not run out, but we were close.”

The city and DOT performed their joint winter “dry run” in August, deploying their plows to clear the county’s roadways of imaginary snow. With luck, the snow this winter will be just as imaginary, but the salt is piled high in the storage facilities just in case.