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.

Flanked by two mountain ranges that deflect rain-bearing clouds, the salt flat lies in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. The desert averages a half-inch of rain each year, but that’s misleading because some weather recording stations, including at the salt flat, haven’t recorded any rain at all. For centuries.

“It’s a place where it hasn’t rained in 400 years,” said Robert George, a Salt International executive who has visited Chile about a dozen times.

Each visit involves a 12-hour flight to Santiago, and then a two-hour flight to Iquique, a port city near the mine. Then it’s a 40-mile drive by Jeep to the strip mine itself, a giant bowl-shaped depression in the earth with construction equipment eating away at its sides.

The most striking thing about the region, which has acted as a proxy for the surface of Mars in Hollywood films and NASA-funded experiments, is its endless drab color, George said.

“Everything is brown,” he said. “Everything. They even had a golf course where they put some strips of paint on the brown ground. That’s how they play golf in the desert.”

60,000 TONS HEADED TO PORTLAND

International Salt uses explosives to blast large ledges of the salt free, after which it is crushed, screened, and carried by truck to the sea, 40 miles away.

There, the trucks fill a ship, the largest possible size that can still squeeze through the Panama Canal, with 60,000 tons of salt. To put that into perspective, a dump truck could take six full loads a day out of the ship every single day, and still wouldn’t have emptied it in a year.

As big as the ships are, George said the company would like to use larger ones, once a project to widen the canal is completed.

Once the ship travels to Portland, a 4,300-mile journey that takes about 16 days to complete, it docks at Sprague Terminal, where cranes haul loads of salt from the belly of the ship.

“They are massive cranes,” Warner said. “When I was up in that big stairwell, I basically couldn’t look down.”

She said the crane operators guide huge grabbers into and out of the opening, narrow enough to leave little room for error.

At this point, the salt has survived the dangers of the open sea, but a new set of obstacles remain for International, which wants to bring its product to market at the highest possible price.

SALT SELLERS COLLIDE

“If you bring wet salt to us, you’re going to suffer a penalty on what we pay you.”

That’s from Brian Burne, the Maine Department of Transportation highway maintenance engineer, who buys salt for the state through a competitive bid process.

He said he has to be tough on the salt companies to protect Maine residents.

“I have thrown out suppliers because they haven’t been paying enough attention to the quality of the material,” he said.

The state contract holds the salt companies to strict standards on gradation, purity levels, the presence of anti-caking agents and water content.

Before it can be sold, the salt must be cleared through U.S. Customs and inspected by an independent lab.

The state contract is for the salt needed for 8,350 miles of state roads and the roads of any other communities in Maine that join in on the bulk purchase. In a rare show of unity, about 95 entities take part in the state contract each year. Most are towns and cities but participants also include the University of Maine, the Passamaquoddy tribe and a few counties,.

The competition for the state contract is fierce, with corporations like International Salt submitting bids worth millions of dollars for each of five different geographical regions.

“It’s extremely competitive,” Warner said. “You can have all the salt in the world, but if you don’t have the proper processes by which you can get it to that customer, you have nothing.”

HANDFUL OF SUPPLIERS COMPETE

International Salt is part of the Germany-based K+S Group, a conglomeration that includes European Salt Company and Morton Salt, two of the world’s most recognizable table salt brands. When the parent company bought Morton, it began calling itself the world’s largest salt producer, with a production capacity of more than 30 million tons a year.

In mid-November, the company reported its salt business had grown by 9 percent over the previous year, with sales of more than $1.2 billion in the first nine months of 2013. Its supplies salt to the largest cities on the eastern seaboard, including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore.

International Salt is large, but it’s not the only salt company in the country.

In all, 28 companies operate 67 salt plants in 16 states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, but only a handful compete for Maine’s state contract.

Other major salt suppliers include Eastern Salt Company, Cargill Salt and Harcros Chemicals.

Eastern, which is based in Massachusetts, is an underdog. The company only gained a toehold in the state after the Morton Salt acquisition, when monopoly concerns prompted the Federal Trade Commission to order International to give up some of its dock space.

Cargill mines 10,000 tons of salt every day from a 40-mile-long mine that extends under Cayuga Lake in Lansing, N.Y., the largest salt mine in North America. Cargill doubled in 1997 when it acquired the North American assets of Akzo Nobel salt, a company that continues to provide salt to parts of Europe.

Harcros, which also sources its salt from Chile, operates a storehouse in Searsport. Its salt operation is part of a larger slate of chemical products it sells from 28 branches in 20 states, including a Westbrook branch.

Nearly three quarters of the salt the U.S. imports comes from either Canada or Chile.

Every salt company touts its own product as the best. Some emphasize a smaller grain size, purity levels, low levels of corrosiveness or price.

Warner won’t concede ground on any of the virtues of International’s salt, but she is particularly enthusiastic about its Blizzard Wizard and other salt products that include chemical additives.

“A lot of salt companies add the blended ingredients topically,” she said. “We actually use equipment that blends everything together. Each salt crystal is encapsulated.”

The result is a superior product, she said, which is more likely to stick to the road, reducing the level of waste resulting from what those in the salt industry call “bounce and scatter” – the tendency of salt crystals to tumble off the blacktop before it has had a chance to do its work.

George, of Salt International, said there is a significant amount of suspense before the state awards the winning bids.

Each company can bid on any region, as well as any town. It goes to the lowest bidder in each case, said Burne, the state engineer.

The price includes transportation, which Burne said is the major reason for the price difference between towns.

“If you’re somewhere close to Portland or Searsport, you’re going to get the best prices,” he said. Portland and Searsport have two of the state’s working ports, so salt that comes to Maine by ship arrives there.

In the northern part of the state, it becomes less expensive to get salt from Canadian mines, Burne said.

This year, Harcros won the middle three regions, which include Augusta and Waterville; International won the southern, which includes Portland, and Cargill won the northern.

“Eastern lost this last time around,” Burne said.

Ten years ago, when Burne first became involved with the state’s salt contract, the price of salt was about $30 a ton in Maine – not much more than dirt, which retails for about $20 a ton.

He said a combination of factors, including changes in China’s market and fuel prices, drove the average price up to about $70 per ton. Prices have come down a bit since, but they’re not what they used to be.

After traveling 4,300 miles by sea, it is the last leg of the journey that will determine the price of road salt for individual communities.

The state pays about $58 per ton in the midcoast region, which includes Waterville and Augusta, and nearly $75 per ton in the northern region, a price spread Burne said is typical.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @hh_matt

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