December 1, 2013

Tons of salt keeping Maine safe

An unassuming crystal plays a big role in Maine’s economy and winter road safety.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

“Our product,” Mary Kay Warner said, “is very pure.”

click image to enlarge

Skowhegan Highway Department employees Jason Kirk, in truck, and Duane Whittemore team up Tuesday at the town’s sand shed to get a mixture of sand and salt loaded for treating roads in anticipation of Wednesday’s storm.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

Warner, who has been working in the road salt industry since 1997, is devout when it comes to salt. Describing her company’s product, she could have passed for a character on Breaking Bad, the television series about a talented crystal meth manufacturer.

“It’s very, very pure,” she said. “99.4 percent.”

Warner works in the communications department of International Salt, one of a handful of companies that jockey for a share of Maine’s multimillion-dollar road salt market.

Salt is spread over thousands of miles of Maine roads to keep them clear and safe during the winter months. The state’s salt industry is large and will likely grow, with a new bagging factory expected to reach full capacity in South Portland this month.

Before 1997, Warner never thought about where her salt came from.

“It was just something you went to the hardware store and purchased and spread on the ground, and it did its job,” she said.

But Warner’s eyes have been opened to the complexity of a supply chain that stretches halfway around the world, with a million moving parts that extract, transport, regulate and distribute small crystals at the heart of a big business.

THAT'S A LOT OF SALT

If you put Maine’s entire population on one side of a scale, and put one year’s worth of road salt on the other, the salt would weigh more – about four times more, at an estimated billion pounds of salt each year, according to a 2010 University of Maine study.

“It was like, ‘Wow, all of this goes into this one product,’ ” Warner said. “It’s quite an amazing process.”

Meanwhile, Maine’s domestic salt industry is about to get a boost.

This winter, much of International’s salt will be processed at a newly completed factory at 1 Lincoln St., South Portland. The 28,000-square-foot building, which is really a fabric skin pulled tight over a galvanized steel frame, houses a massive pile of salt available for bulk purchases.

Chris Pizey, president of Lincoln Street Materials and Packaging, which operates the factory, said his trucking company has been managing the corporation’s salt supply chain in Maine for years.

Pizey said he bought the parcel next to the marine terminal in South Portland with the intent of using it for convenient salt storage, but International decided to move its bagging operations from Pennsylvania.

Pizey said the deal, completed in July, was a year in the making.

As soon as the automated bagging machinery arrives, the salt from Chile will be blended with chemical additives and sold to consumers as winter road de-icers under the names Arctic Thaw, C-Force, Halite, and Blizzard Wizard.

The automated bagging system conveys salt from bins into bags, and then stacks about a ton of bags on a pallet. Once “palletized,” the stack of bags is shrink-wrapped, tarped, shrink-wrapped again, and put on a truck headed for Home Depot, Lowes, hardware stores and other retailers.

“This thing will spit out a pallet of salt every three and a half minutes,” Pizey said. He expects to bag about 20,000 tons of salt a year at the factory, which will only keep its 10 new workers busy seasonally. He said he’ll be looking for other products to bag at the factory soon.

WHERE SALT IS BORN

The salt that lands on Maine’s roads is at the tail end of a journey that began long ago in a faraway land.

Specifically, 10 million years ago, when ancient seas dried up, leaving behind massive salt deposits in what today is northern Chile. International says there is enough salt in the Tarapaca Salt Flat to meet the needs of the entire world for at least 5,000 years. The salt deposit is such a significant natural resource that it was the focus of The War of the Pacific, a conflict between Chile, Peru and Bolivia that lasted from 1879 to 1884.

(Continued on page 2)

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