For salt company, winter means money
Ready to melt
FORT PLAIN For Vince Logan, the more snow and ice on the roads this winter, the better.
“If we had a snowstorm every week, that would be great,” he said. “It could start tomorrow.”
Logan is general manager of Capital District Salt, headquartered in a little office next to what looks like a massive tent outside Fort Plain.
Up close the tent is actually a 150-by-550-foot structure of cement pilings, steel joists and drum-tight vinyl.
Inside its vault is a 90,000-ton pile of rock salt waiting to be spread on roads all over Fulton, Montgomery, Hamilton, Otsego and Schoharie counties this winter. The company started by Logan’s father buys the salt directly from a Finger Lakes mine and either trucks it to customers or dumps it in the salt pile.
Logan revved his big pickup truck through the industrial loading dock, skidding up a steep salt-pack road. “I hope you’re not afraid of heights,” he told a visitor.
The packed road sloped about 60 feet up the salt pile. It’s left over from the heavy machinery responsible for moving the tons of salt from truck to pile, much like the ancient Egyptians moved stone blocks up their pyramids.
He parked the truck halfway up the mound and climbed the last few yards to the peak on foot, raising clouds of mouth-drying dust.
“It all has to be stacked,” he said, he said, pointing down the 72-foot slope. “We’ll load it right to the door. There will be 105,000 tons in here by the time we’re done.”
The whole batch was cut from a Cargill-owned mine 2,300 feet below the surface of Lake Cayuga in Lansing.
Aside from having gone through a crusher, the salt is the same as it comes out of the ground. Logan even lifted a 6-inch piece of yellow plastic tubing from underfoot — a bit of fuse casing for the dynamite responsible for loosing salt from the mine walls.
From the top of his salt mountain, one hand on the vinyl roof for balance, Logan explained some of the challenges faced by his industry.
“It has to be covered,” he said. “It dissolves in water just like table salt. If it rains, it will wash away.”
The enormous tent roof keeps out the weather, preserving the salt, but the salt does the opposite to the roof.
As any winter driver knows, salt is corrosive stuff. Splashed up from the road it will eat away at a car’s undercarriage, and it’s no different in crystal form.
The Caterpillar front-loader used on the pile is a patchwork of rust, and the roof has seen its share of abuse.
Back in 2007, just five years after the place was built, a few of the steel joists, rotted by salt, collapsed under the weight of a Valentine’s Day blizzard.
Now the joists are protected from the corrosion by an extra layer of vinyl on the inside of the roof.
To date, that snowstorm in 2007 is the only one Logan hasn’t enjoyed.
“We rely on the weather just like ski slopes and snowmobile dealers,” he said. “If the weather is good, by which I mean it snows a lot, business is good.”
Near the back of the pile, the salt has a crusty shell.
Logan said over time salt tries to turn back into rock. It will all get mashed up again before hitting the road, but the crust represents a larger problem.
Most of the 90,000 tons have been sitting for a long time, which isn’t good for business.
Over last year’s mild winter, only 10,000 tons were used from the pile, which is about one sixth of normal winter usage.
Realistically, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
“We haul about 10,000 tons of salt a week from the mine all winter long regardless of the weather,” said operations manager Jay Nellis.
He explained that their pile in Fort Plain, along with one in the Port of Albany, are just reserves. When the weather is mild, they truck salt directly from the mine to their clients: local, county and state highway departments.
“When there’s a big snowstorm and we can’t keep up with our orders,” he said, “we use the reserves.”
Last year there were orders, but they didn’t come in a flurry. As a result, the 90,000-ton pile barely had a dent in it by spring.
“It wasn’t so much the winter,” Nellis said. “It affects us all year. If we don’t use the reserve piles, we have nothing to restock in the spring, summer and fall.”
The company has its roots in basic trucking, and still hauls stone, sand and crushed glass, but the salt business is its main income.
Logan couldn’t estimate how much money the mild winter prevented them from making, but this year, everyone at Capital District Salt is hoping for a good winter of nasty weather.