Winter Makes The Salt Business Sizzle

Salt becomes a hot commodity when the nation is gripped by snow and ice. Reporter David Boeri visits the Eastern Salt Company's terminal in Chelsea, Mass., to learn a bit about the road-salt business.

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Americans just can't seem to get enough salt. We've heard about that in our diets. But in this case we're talking about the surging demand for road salt this winter. In snowy New England, where the refrain of highway departments has become please pass the salt, the business of selling it is thriving, as David Boeri reports.

DAVID BOERI: A short jump across the harbor from Boston in the tiny city of Chelsea sits a 40 to 50 foot mountain of multicolored crystals draped by a red, white and blue tarp. It sings a song that salt is King.

What's the secret of the salt business?

Mr. PAUL LAMB (Manager, Eastern Salt Company): Snow and ice.

BOERI: In the road salt business of Massachusetts, Paul Lamb is better known than the Morton Salt girl. He manages the Chelsea terminal for the Eastern Salt Company.

Mr. LAMB: Salt is not worth anything in July. OK? Now, you're getting now during a snow storm, people will pay whatever to get it, you know.

BOERI: The girl on the salt container should be saying, when it snows it pours. This year Eastern Salt is on target to sell more than a million tons. That's three times the volume of a few years ago.

Mr. LAMB: We're about halfway done with the season, maybe a little over half, and there's no sign of snow letting up.

BOERI: Mammoth front-end loaders spoon into the pile and disgorge their mouthfuls into a fleet of 18-wheelers and dump trucks headed across the state. Driver Dougie Colton is taking 34 tons.

You've been busy this year.

Mr. DOUGIE COLTON (Driver, Eastern Salt Company): Ha, never ends, never ends.

BOERI: Massachusetts state highways have used over 370,000 tons of salt this year. As a commodity, salt is relatively inexpensive. The biggest cost component is moving it. Road salt is nothing if not cosmopolitan. The multiple colors in the mountain are like flags of origin.

Mr. LAMB: The brown salt is out of our mine over in Chile. Now, the white salt's from Mexico, that's a solar salt which evaporated out of the ocean. Generally we'll have some Irish salt. We'll have some Egyptian salt.

BOERI: What's Egyptian salt?

Mr. LAMB: Egyptian's kind of a grayish salt.

Thursday we have a ship coming in from Australia.

BOERI: On the principle that you never want to put all your salt in one basket, the Eastern Salt Company balances a mix of supply with demand as unpredictable as the snow. Right now the salt's pouring. In fact, Paul Lamb's biggest problem is his own driveway. It's a mess.

But you use salt in the driveway, don't you?

Mr. LAMB: I can never remember to bring any home.

BOERI: For NPR News, I'm David Boeri in Boston.

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