If you’re planning to visit the cottage this winter, keep your fingers crossed that local roads and the parking lot at the nearest grocery store won’t be skating rinks. There’s been a serious shortage of road salt—so much so that some road maintenance operations have had to look as far away as Egypt for a supply.
The reasons, as always, are complicated. The Great Lakes region normally has an ample supply of salt, thanks to mines that harvest deposits left by ancient seas and supply most of North America’s rock salt, but there have been problems of late. Ontario’s supply has been impacted by a 12-week strike at the Compass Minerals mine in Goderich earlier this year. Compass operates the world’s largest salt mine, burrowing 550 metres beneath Lake Huron. (Helpful salt mining factoid: the Compass mine has been operating since 1867, when a search for oil turned up salt instead.) The strike ended in July, but summer is normally when mines are digging away and moving their salt by freighter to customers, to prepare them for the coming winter. The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) assures us that the “quantities of salt outlined in the ministry’s contracts are secure and will be provided at the contracted price.”
The question remains how every snow removal and maintenance operation other than MTO in Ontario is going to cope with the coming winter. The MTO is responsible only for keeping provincial highways drivable, and that leaves countless kilometres of municipally maintained roads, as well as private roads and properties. MTO says, “Compass has advised their commercial clients (private snow and ice removal – i.e., parking lots) of an inventory shortage and responsible actions they can take to help mitigate the shortfall.” K+S Windsor Salt (previously called the Canadian Salt Company) has been trying to make up some of the supply shortfall from the other Great Lakes mines at its Ojibway mine in Windsor. But don’t be surprised if the rock salt has to be spread a bit less generously if we have a tough winter.
It may turn out that a supply problem is the tough love we need, to cut back on the estimated five million tonnes of salt that Canadians dump on roads, driveways, and parking lots every year. Spreading truckloads of salt—even bag loads onto your driveway—in a freshwater ecosystem comes at an environmental price. Last June, the Ontario Good Roads Association and Conservation Ontario issued guidelines for salt use, hoping municipalities and commercial property owners could become more judicious in how much and where they spread the stuff, especially in what are called “salt vulnerable areas.” That’s mainly places where runoff will carry salt and salt brine into parts of the watershed that can’t cope.
For your own cottage driveway, walkway, or parking pad, now may be the best time to consider more environmentally friendly alternatives to rock salt. Municipalities have been trying everything from sugar beet molasses to cheese brine to come up with a less harmful solution. For private property owners, products that provide traction, rather than melt the ice, are worth exploring. Sand and gravel are obvious choices, but commercial products include volcanic stone. If you’re really stuck, try dumping coffee grounds on the front steps. If nothing else, their dark colour will attract the sun’s warming rays and help melt the snow and ice.