'Triple whammy' threatens Ontario road salt supplies: Markham contractor

03 Oct 2018 1:00 PM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)


Winter’s probably the last thing you want to think about, but you may want to consider stocking up on bags of salt for your driveway and walkways as soon as possible.

There’s going to be a serious road salt shortage in Ontario and the eastern United States this winter.

Salt producers are allocating scare resources to municipalities first, but private contractors are scrambling to find supplies and higher prices are “inevitable,” according to Landscape Ontario Horticultural Trades Association, which is raising the red flag to its members about the scarcity.

The Region of York and the region’s nine municipalities will have adequate supplies to salt regional and local roads, Peter Pilateris, the region’s manager of roads operations, said.

But contractors will be hard-pressed to get their hands on salt for private properties such at parking lots at shopping centres, workplaces, government buildings, public transit stations, hospitals, police stations and fire halls.

In fact, the industry-wide shortage is expected to be so severe, Terry Nicholson and Brent Giles have resorted to ordering a shipment of salt from Egypt to meet their customers’ needs.

Nicholson is vice-president of Markham-based Clintar Landscape Management, Canada’s largest snow removal contractor. Giles is the company’s director of operations and corporate training.

Clintar, along with a few other contractors, has purchased 48,000 tonnes of salt from Egypt, which is now being loaded on a ship and will reach here in four to six weeks.

It will be distributed to the buyers in southern Ontario and Cleveland.

Nicholson and Giles were anxious that the salt be shipped by Thanksgiving to ensure it arrived here in time for winter.

It takes weeks for an ocean liner to make it to Montreal, where the supply is split into lake vessels to make it through the canals to the Great Lakes to be distributed to the contractors.

Clintar’s Markham franchise only has two storms worth of salt at a nearby Scarborough depot to service local customers.

“There’s only so much salt we can get. There’s a point where we can’t get anymore,” Nicholson said.

“The government takes care of roads. That’s it. Every other piece of asphalt is taken care by contractors. Contractors use more salt than the roads departments would use because there is more asphalt and we hold all the liability. So, we have to salt them because if people slip and fall and get hurt, we get sued.”

A “triple whammy” has led to the drastic salt shortage, Giles said.

An excessive winter in some locations, followed by ice storms last April depleted reserves.

Meanwhile, of the three salt mines that serve the Great Lakes Basin, a huge area including Ontario, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Ohio, which consumes thousands of tonnes of road salt a year, the one in Goderich endured an 11-week strike that ended in July and the one in Cleveland is flooded.

“We don’t know (how much salt will be available for contractors), but when two of the three suppliers are saying zero, we’re starting behind the eight ball,” Nicholson said.  

Giles called the shortage “a huge deal.”

“If our industry contractors are being cut off and not allowed to put salt down, it obviously becomes a safety hazard or safety concern for all the shopping malls and hospitals and plazas that we service,” he said.

“It could potentially become ice-covered, we could have some serious issues. It becomes a health and safety concern, a public safety concern.”

For customers lucky to have contractors who secure salt, they will be facing a significant increase in cost, Giles said.

Meanwhile, desperate contractors may resort to buying bagged salt from stores, meaning residents will have a difficult time finding salt for their driveways and walkways, he said.

Adding to contractors’ headaches, customers refuse to allow them to use sand instead of salt because they complain its gets tracked into carpets and clogs up catch basins, Nicholson said.

While contractors are stressed about the lack of salt, the environment is poised to benefit.

“Winter road salt, which contains chloride, has become an environmental issue of great concern in this watershed and beyond,” according to the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.

“In short, we're applying too much, chloride concentrations are steadily increasing and it's having negative environmental consequences. Our monitoring activities have identified a disturbing increase in salt in our rivers and streams and Lake Simcoe itself.

Chloride is highly soluble, meaning once it dissolves in water, there’s no way of getting it out of lakes and rivers, the authority said.

 “And our plants and animals are accustomed to fresh water. So, the increasing salt concentrations are hurting them,” its website said.

“So, we need to address the issue by trying to reduce the amount of salt we use since it's really our only option. If we don't, salt is poised to overtake phosphorus as the biggest issue in the watershed.”

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