Salt stockpiles full as winter approaches (11/13/08)

Officials hope to avoid last year’s shortage

Nov. 13, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Neil Boyden and his staff have stockpiled salt, adjusted equipment and bought a new plow. Now they await the first snowstorm.


    Observer photo by Greg Elias
Williston’s stockpile of salt sits in a shed off James Brown Drive. The town can store only about 300 tons in the shed, a fraction of what it uses during an average winter.

Williston’s public works director is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst this winter. He’d be happy to avoid last year’s woes, when one of the snowiest winters on record exhausted the salt supply and drove the cost of clearing roads to budget-busting levels.

“It really all depends on the weather, and nobody can forecast that,” Boyden said. “If we have a normal winter, we will have more than enough.”

Like other municipalities, Williston has limited salt storage capacity. The town’s shed holds about 300 tons. More than 2,000 tons are used during a typical winter.

The situation means the town has to rely on regular deliveries from suppliers. Williston and other area towns each have their own contracts but piggyback on the state’s arrangements with suppliers, which helps reduce costs.

The system works fine most winters. But last winter brought one of the largest snowfall totals ever. The National Weather Service in South Burlington recorded 120.2 inches during the snow season running from October to April, said meteorologist Donny Dumont. That’s the fourth-highest total on record.

The large amount of snow combined with the high number of individual snowfalls consumed salt stockpiles and forced towns to scramble for more at prices as much as 50 percent higher than at the beginning of the season.

Suppliers could not keep up with the demand as repeated snowstorms swept across the country. Some towns stopped spreading salt or mixed it with sand to make it go farther.

This winter, Williston has contracted to buy salt for about $55 a ton. Trying to economize, Boyden bought some salt last June because he could get it for only $49 a ton.

“I was already so far over budget, what difference did it make?” he said.

Williston’s salt budget last year was $106,000. Boyden said the town spent more than $140,000, but made cuts elsewhere to balance the larger road maintenance budget.

This year, the town is getting a better deal on salt than the state. The average price that the state is paying is $58.30 a ton, up from about $50 a ton last year, said Vermont Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi.

The Agency of Transportation has 90,000 tons of salt stored at locations scattered around the state, Zicconi said. The agency will share with towns in an emergency, as it did last year, but he emphasized that the state is not in the business of being a salt supplier.

Boyden said the town has taken other steps to avoid a repeat of last winter’s shortage.

Sand has also been stockpiled, which the town can mix with salt should supplies run low. Salt spreaders have been adjusted to maximize the equipment’s efficiency and effectiveness. The town has also replaced one aging truck used for plowing.

Zicconi said the state is also economizing. It plans to concentrate salt on curves, hills and intersections and spread less elsewhere.

Perhaps somewhat wishfully, Zicconi noted that the variability of winter weather in Vermont means that the odds are there will be less snow this winter and plenty of salt to go around.

“One thing we know in Vermont is there is no such thing as a typical winter,” he said. “They are all amazingly different.”