Brutal winter melts salt supplies across country, spurs cheesy alternatives

Brutal winter has left some cities struggling to get stockpiles of salt to hard-hit areas. A salt truck clears road in Columbia, Missouri, Feb. 4.

Story highlights

  • Brutal winter has left some cities struggling to get stockpiles of salt for roads and sidewalks
  • Facing shortages, New York City and Long Island to get salt from the state
  • Around the nation, municipalities have used everything from a pickle juice-like mix to cheese brine
With snow in the forecast almost daily, municipalities in much of the country have been sprinkling roads and sidewalks with salt for safety.
But this brutal winter has left some cities struggling to get stockpiles of salt to hard-hit areas, authorities said. Others have turned to alternatives such as cheese brine to keep roads safe -- despite the lingering odor.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that the long, snowy winter had left New York City and Long Island with salt shortages, prompting the state Department of Transportation to move 3,500 tons of road salt to those areas from state stockpiles, according to a statement.
The state is also mixing sand with salt to stretch resources, according to a Cuomo spokesman.
While salt is essential to making the roads safer, New Yorkers should take news of shortages with a grain of, well, salt because alternatives are used throughout the country. Sometimes the alternatives are cheaper than traditional salt.
In Polk County, Wisconsin, for instance, cheese brine from factories is used for snow and ice control, according to Michael Sproul, program manager at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
"Cheese brine is not an alternative to salt, it's just a cheaper version," he said, adding that it's mixed with salt to conserve supplies. "In Wisconsin, it's a waste product. For us, it can be used on the roads. Someone can give it to us. We ask them to filter and deliver it and we use it ... We're doing them a favor. It's just another material that we can use with salt to treat the snow and ice that's supposed to be close to free.
The brine is effective because it works at a lower temperature than normal salt, according to Emil Norby, technical support manager at the Polk County Highway Department.
In Bergen County, New Jersey, officials in the past have used a mixture of salt and water that resembles pickle juice and costs significantly less than salt, former county Public Works Director Joe Crifasi told CNN affiliate WCBS in 2011, which was also an exceptionally snowy winter.
Other alternatives to salt have included liquid from byproducts, including beer waste and beet juice, according to a study by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a New York state-based environmental group.
Some communities are dealing with high costs for both salt and overtime for plow drivers.
In Oak Park, Illinois, salt is three times the normal price because of high demand this winter, and overtime for plow workers is adding up.