January 27, 2011

The Road to Salt

Transport roadways run through a Chilean salt mine that ships salt to New Hampshire,
which will then be used to treat slippery roads.
 A lot of us take road salt for granted, but there are some truly 
wonderful stories behind the stuff that keeps our roads safe in winter. 
A conveyor of salt is loaded onto a ship in Chile, bound for NH.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Before you step out onto your snowcovered front porch steps this morning, or drive down your snow-packed driveway, making a left turn onto the slush-covered street to start your daily commute, don’t forget to thank the good people of Chile, who have been keeping New Englanders moving for years, even on snowiest of mornings.
That’s right. Tropical salt dug from the Tarapaca Salt Flat in Iquique, Chile, is shipped directly to Portsmouth,
 where it’s carted away by trucks that distribute it to a salt terminal near you — if you live within 125 miles of the Seacoast. 

And it’s not just happening here in New Hampshire, but that same salt is being delivered to towns and cities along the East Coast, from Maine to South Carolina. 
If you are among those who have taken the importance of rock salt with a grain of salt all these years, now is as good a time as any to consider how the 80,000 annual tons of sodium chloride imported to New Hampshire from South America gets here, and why. 
Oh sure, salt is most notorious as the dietary enemy that makes our blood boil in large quantities, and when lacking, kills us (a.k.a. death by hyponatremia). Our love/hate relationship with sodium chloride is as natural as it is unnatural. After all, it’s the only member of the rock family we humans eat in some form or another every day of our lives. 
Ask Bill Creighton why we sprinkle our New Hampshire highways with salt imported from deserts more than 4,000 miles away, and he will tell you it was simply a stroke of economic genius by one David Mahoney, who preceded him as president of Granite State Minerals in Newington. 
“Fifty years ago, Mr. Mahoney was one of the first entrepreneurs to look into taking salt from different parts of the world to compete with domestic mines in the United States,” said Creighton. “He understood the economics of shipping versus rail transportation. In terms of energy per volume, shipping the salt from Chile is far more efficient than bringing it here by rail.” 
While some western regions of the state still rely on salt brought in by railroad from Midwestern mines, much of New Hampshire owes its drivable highways and byways to Chilean mine operations. 
And to take the international intrigue of road salt just a little bit further, the salt mined in Chile is part of a worldwide salt empire run by K+S Group, which is headquartered in Germany. Not only do they also provide road salt for most of Europe, they have also recently purchased the Morton Salt Company, expanding their salty holdings beyond roads, sidewalks and water softeners, to the condiments in your cupboard. 
Salt shakers aside, if you know your salt history, you know 2011 marks the 70th anniversary of America’s love affair with road salt. In fact, New Hampshire was the first state to use salt to treat roads, according to the National Research Council in Washington, D.C.
The science of road salt has come a long way since then, said Mary Kay Warner, spokesman for K+S Group’s Pennsylvania offices. 
Derry's stockpile of salt is ready for the next
big storm, thanksto miners in Chile.
“Making sure that salt works effectively as a road agent requires a complete understanding of how it’s applied, in terms of anti-icing versus de-icing,” said Warner. “I’m right now looking at a 100-page report that details the technology behind all of this. That’s how technical it’s become.” 
No matter how it shakes out, Na+Cl still adds up to plain old sodium chloride, and while the effect of salt on snow-covered highways is marvelous, it is not magic, said Bill Boynton, of the state Department of Transportation. 
All the tropical salt in the world is powerless to melt New England ice when the temperature dips below 15 degrees. 
“It loses its effectiveness when the temperature gets as low as it has been the last few days. We do have some chemicals we can mix, like the stuff you buy for your sidewalks, but it’s more expensive. 
Tuesday was a difficult day for us quite honestly, when you’re talking about 4,200 miles of state highway. When salt is the dominant anti-icing agent, and the temperature is hovering around zero, there’s not much else you can do except plow, sand and remind people to slow down,” Boynton said. 

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