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City turns to private truckers to replenish salt supply, thanks to ‘challenging winter’

CHICAGO IL - JANUARY 27:  Ice covers shore 31st Street Beach as temperatures drop below zero January 27 2014

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 27: Ice covers the shore at 31st Street Beach as temperatures drop below zero January 27, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The city is bracing for another round of severe cold as temperatures are expected to drop to -15 to -20 degrees this evening and wind chills are anticipated as low as -25 to -45 degrees through Wednesday morning. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Updated: March 3, 2014 1:21PM

Chicago has hired private contractors to pick up salt from piles in Downstate Ottawa and Camanche, Iowa, to replenish a supply that dropped to 70,000 tons after a Morton Salt Co. barge got stuck on the Mississippi River near Cairo.

“This is not a salt shortage. We’re taking proactive measures to ensure there are ample amounts of salt to keep residents safe,” said Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Budget and Management.

“This pro-active operation is not unique to Chicago, and it is not unique to this winter. We stockpiled more than 285,000 tons of salt to start winter. We replenish it on a regular basis to maintain an ample supply. But this has been a challenging winter that has increased the demand for salt.”

The 35 private trucks making runs to salt piles in Ottawa and Camanche were hired by the city after a Morton barge on its way to Chicago got stuck in ice on the Mississippi in southern Illinois.

Quinn added, “Our vendor informed us that ice in the river had slowed down barge traffic, making it difficult to deliver the product.”

A few weeks ago, the city had its own drivers — 25 from the Department of Streets and Sanitation and 25 from other departments — making overnight runs to replenish dwindling salt piles.

But, Quinn said Monday, the decision to summon private contractors was made because city trucks were needed to remove a steady barrage of snow.

On average, the city uses anywhere from 10,000 to 13,000 tons of salt for each snow removal program. That means the 70,000 tons on hand would be enough to get through fewer than seven more snowstorms.

“We are not in danger of running out, but we’re having more brought in,” she said. “In January, there have been 14 days of subzero temperatures. We have had nine snow events totaling 33.1 inches. … This is the third-snowiest January ever. The last time something like this happened in the winter of 2007 to 2008, the city took similar steps to pick up salt from regional salt sites.”

Earlier this month, Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams established a one-truckload-per-shift quota on salt spreading to “manage” the city’s dwindling supply.

At the time, it stood at 100,000 tons, 30,000 more than the city has on hand now. The city had spent $7.2 million on salt — with precious little to show for it because of the deep freeze.

Salt spending now totals $10.4 million since January.

The one-truck-per shift quota prompted South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) to sound the alarm about a “salt shortage” that the city categorically denied.

The costly decision to hire private trucks to pick up salt was made to avoid a shortage if the snow keeps coming.

Quinn also disclosed that, as of Saturday, Chicago had plowed through $16.5 million — all but $4 million of a $20.5 million snow removal budget that was supposed to cover this winter and the start of next.

“We’re still under budget,” she said.

Denise Lauer, a spokeswoman for Morton Salt, could not be reached for comment.

Private trucks will pick up salt from Morton at a discounted rate $3- to $5-a-ton cheaper than the $58.51-a-ton cost of salt that the company delivers to the city.

The convoy of private trucks is expected to continue for roughly 10 days and pick up 15,000 tons of salt. The cost, including labor, equipment and salt, was pegged at $1.2 million.

Quinn stressed that Morton and Detroit Salt continue to provide salt to the city at a rate of nearly 9,000 tons a week, as they have throughout the winter.


Twitter: @fspielman

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