Imagine a battle where the good guys achieve victory, but they use up most of their bullets in the struggle.
The commanding general calls for more supplies and is told the truck is on its way, due any time now.
Then another enemy force appears. With yet another army right behind it.
Such is the problem facing local public works departments when it comes to road salt. The towns had full salt sheds in November, before near-record December snows started falling. But not now.
Pepperell highway Superintendent Peter Shattuck, for example, reported having no road salt in his shed on Jan. 2, despite repeated calls to his supplier, Eastern Salt Co. Inc., in Chelsea. There are other salt suppliers, he said, but Eastern is the biggest in the region.
Within a few days, two truckloads of salt, 30 to 40 tons each, arrived in Pepperell. Used cautiously, Shattuck said, that might be enough salt to treat the town’s roads for one storm, if the storm isn’t too big.
The timing of the storms was a minor disaster, and Pepperell isn’t alone in its concerns.
A moderate storm hit Dec. 16, a smaller one struck Dec. 20, then substantial snow fell Dec. 23, 27, 29, and the flakes were still falling on New Year’s Eve.
Towns use tons of salt to keep roads passable — up to 100 tons per storm in some cases and lesser amounts between storms to correct icy spots. In the lulls that usually follow, trucks arrive with more rock salt. It takes one to four loads to replace the salt used up in one storm.
But when a second storm arrives before the resupply truck shows up, then a third storm, some towns may find themselves defenseless, with empty salt sheds.
Sand is useless unless mixed with salt, said Harvard DPW Director Richard Nota. His town, like most others, applies a thin layer of straight salt in most areas once the first flakes start to fall, to form a brine layer on the pavement that keeps snow from sticking. Then a mix of salt and sand is spread.
Eastern Salt supplies some 70 towns, with salt from around the world arriving by ship at its waterfront location. Cranes unload the ships’ holds, creating a huge mountain of salt beside the pier. At times, lines of box trucks choke the narrow streets around Eastern, waiting for a chance to load up.
Delivery is the bottleneck, though calls placed to Eastern Salt to confirm that claim went unanswered. Eastern hires local trucking firms to haul their salt.
One truck can handle two or three trips per day, according to Shattuck. Pepperell offered to send its own truck to make a pickup, he said, but was denied because there was no room for more trucks and the firm has just one scale to weigh vehicles.
Two years ago, he said Pepperell was allowed to pick up its own salt after normal business hours. It seems each town has its own relationship with the supplier, he said, and prices differ.
Shirley is party to the Massachusetts state contract, with Eastern and four other suppliers that provide salt for MassHighway — filling the big, white salt shed on Route 2A in Littleton, and others — and dozens of towns. Salt deliveries within three days and no later than 10 are guaranteed. The cost is $59.60 per ton.
Shirley Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Joseph Lynch said he made repeated phone calls to Eastern to get any salt at all in late December, then received just one 40-ton “emergency load” for each of the last two storms.
“We’re using it up faster than we can get it,” Lynch said, noting that Shirley has waited weeks for its requested 11 loads of salt.
Lynch said his salt shed can hold 600 to 700 tons, requiring more than 20 truckloads to fill.
“Our ability to provide safe roads, and therefore safety to our citizens, is compromised” by the short supply of salt, said Lynch.
He added, however, that everyone understands the difficulty Eastern Salt faces in trying to meet demand.
Groton also subscribes to the statewide salt contract. Highway surveyor Thomas Delaney said he defends the higher price per ton, saying the contract gives the town higher priority in deliveries.
Groton has 500 tons of salt on order, he said, and perhaps 300 tons on hand. While that may sound like a lot, Delaney said 300 tons will handle not quite two storms.
“I’d like to have at least three storms’ (worth) on hand,” he said. He added that he’s endured worse years, with no salt anywhere.
Townsend, on the other hand, is not a party to the state salt contract. The town belongs to a consortium of 12 communities that negotiates its own contract with Eastern Salt. Townsend, as does Lowell, Dracut, Carlisle, Ashby and other members, pays $50.60 per ton.
Deliveries have been arriving, but just enough to keep the sanders rolling.
Townsend mixes its salt with sand — in a 4-1 ratio — and uses about 100 tons per storm, depending on the duration and precipitation type, said highway Superintendent Edward Kukkula . He said the sand/salt shed is less than half full — containing about 150 tons of its 1,600-ton capacity.
“It’s not going to go far,” Kukkula warned, estimating it would take about a month to refill the shed at normal delivery rates.
Harvard belongs to a different purchasing consortium, centered around Acton, but its supplier is Granite State Minerals in Portsmouth, N.H. Nota said his town and 13 others, as far away as Sudbury and Wayland, pay $53.33 per ton.
Harvard’s small, 300-ton shed is low on salt, Nota said, but should have enough.
The town’s sanders are now calibrated to better regulate salt usage, he said. They put down 500 pounds of sand per lane, per mile, and salt isn’t used in environmentally sensitive areas.
“You just have to be smart about how you use it,” Nota said.
Pepperell has an individual contract with Eastern Salt, and pays $54.54 per ton. The state takes care of Route 119, said Shattuck, but Pepperell services routes 113 and 111.
Ayer also has its own contract, but it’s supplied by both Eastern Salt and Granite State.
DPW Superintendent Michael Madigan said his supply is more reliable because of that fact, so much so that several years ago during a critical shortage he could provide the state some salt when it called for help.
All the town DPW bosses agree that delivery, not supply, is their biggest problem with road salt. They know the salt is nearby, in Chelsea or Portsmouth, but getting that salt into the town DPW shed is another matter.
And when the storms arrive just days apart, supplies run out quickly.
Now, salt deliveries are slowly trickling in, gradually rebuilding supplies, in the lull before that next huge nor’easter.