WBUR

It’s A Good Winter To Be In The Salt Business

CHELSEA, Mass. — In the history of salt, using it to turn snow and ice into slush on the highway shows up in the later chapters, somewhere after soy sauce, gunpowder, embalming, olive oil, sauerkraut and ham.

But over on the waterfront here in Chelsea, a 40- to 50-foot-high mound of multicolored crystals draped by a red, white and blue tarp sings a song that Salt is King.

“What’s the secret of the salt business?” I wonder.

“Snow and ice.”

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 Co., which started back in 1950.

“Salt is not worth anything in July, OK,” Lamb said. “Now, during a snow storm, people will pay whatever to get it, you know.”

The girl under the yellow umbrella should be saying, “When it snows it pours.” This year Eastern Salt is on target to sell more than a million tons.

“We’re about halfway done with the season, maybe a little over half, and there’s no sign of the snow letting up,” Lamb said.

Across five acres of pavement with not a spot of ice on it, huge cranes have unloaded a barge-full of salt onto the slopes of the mountain. Mammoth front-end loaders are spooning into the pile and dumping their mouthfuls into a 100-truck fleet of 18-wheelers and dump trucks headed across Massachusetts.

“You been busy this year,” said Dougie Colton, who’s just pulled his rig in and picked up 34 tons of salt that’s a mix of blue and white.

“It never ends,” Lamb said. “It never ends.”

Coulton’s off to Boston College.

“The other truck in front of you, one’s going to Braintree, truck behind me is going to Allston, other truck going to Framingham,” Lamb said.

The state alone has used over 370,000 tons of salt on its highways this year.

As a commodity, salt is relatively inexpensive and found practically everywhere. The biggest cost component is moving it. Our road salt is nothing if not cosmopolitan. The multiple colors in the mountain are like flags of origin.

“The brown salt is out of our mine over in Chile,” Lamb said. “The white salt is from Mexico, that’s a solar salt which evaporated out of the ocean. Generally we’ll have some Irish salt, some Egyptian salt.”

“What’s the Egyptian salt?”

“The Egyptian is kind of a grayish salt,” he said. “Thursday, we have a ship coming in from Australia. That has about 65,000 tons on it. That’s pure white.”

You never want to put all your “salt” in one basket, goes the business principle. Lamb has to balance a steady supply with demand as unpredictable as the snow. Right now the salt’s pouring.

And Paul Lamb’s biggest problem is his own driveway. It’s a mess.

“But you use salt in the driveway, don’t you?”

“I can never remember to bring any home.”

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