If you're looking for someone to blame for the slippery road conditions in the wake of last week's icy weather, you might want to look east. Far East.
Shipping lines are so busy handling China's import-export needs that road salt companies are having trouble finding vessels to transport their supplies from overseas, said International Salt Co. Chief Executive Officer Robert Jones. Those shipping delays translate into low salt reserves in Maryland, where International Salt supplies the state and several counties.
"Vessel transportation is out of balance with the demands that are out there," Jones said. "I've been looking for ships for the last two weeks, around the world, and I'm having a hard time coming up with them."
The shortage has forced road crews dealing with icy roads from last week's storms to be creative.
In Baltimore, crews are mixing salt with magnesium chloride for maximum effectiveness in melting ice as temperatures rise. In Harford County, highway district Superintendent Kenneth Gemmill is combining salt with "aggregate," a stone dust mixture that provides traction.
Gemmill said he has less than 1,500 tons of the salt-aggregate mix, which has to last until the next shipment arrives Feb. 16 from his Delaware-based supplier.
"Put it this way: With the aggregate, you're not going to get the meltage that you would if you're using pure salt," Gemmill said. "It's for traction; it doesn't melt."
Harford County can store about 10,000 tons of salt, but its reserves have been largely depleted. The county was working yesterday to secure a shipment next week.
When Bill Malone was working in Massachusetts, he could head to a sand pit and make a salt-sand concoction. But now, as the chief of Howard County's highways bureau, he is buying cinders in bulk to mix with salt. Although Howard's stockpile has gone from 11,000 tons to 2,500, Malone doesn't fear shortages.
"Salt comes in, salt goes out," Malone said. "The companies are being equitable, working hard and trying to share it equally."
International Salt supplies much of the Northeast, and Jones said he expects a 40,000- to 50,000-ton shipment to arrive at the company's Canton facility Tuesday, followed by several more shipments later in the month.
Because China is willing to pay such high shipping costs, Jones said, the company is having difficulty getting ships to its main salt supply in Chile. Recently, the company has looked to Mexico, Italy and Britain for reserves, in hopes of getting the supplies here more quickly.
Typically, once the ship passes through the Panama Canal, the company decides which port it will land in based on need.
"We've had years when Maryland has had low-snow winters, but in the last two years, there's been an above-normal demand," Jones said, adding that his company supplies 80 percent of the salt used on the state's highways. "Most of our customers understand."
How each county fares, salt-wise, depends in part on how much snow it has had.
In Anne Arundel County, spokeswoman Pam Jordan pronounced the county in "beautiful shape." And Montgomery County chief of highway maintenance Tom Orr said he is "very comfortable" with his county's reserves.
As of Wednesday, Carroll County officials had 1,800 tons of salt remaining. Yesterday, International sent the county about 1,500 tons, which Carroll roads director Benton Watson said would get the county through one more storm.
Baltimore County Highways Bureau Chief Tim Burgess said the county has enough salt to get through a major storm. The problem, he said, is the persistent melting and refreezing, which forces the county to send out salt trucks even when there's been no new precipitation.
"I'll take that blizzard we had last year - give me 30 inches," Burgess said. "We probably didn't use as much salt in that as we probably used the other day."
Although the county is down to a third of its capacity - 15,000 to 18,000 tons - it expects another shipment in a week, Burgess said.
Washington County also received a shipment late in the week. By the time it arrived, the county was getting rain instead of ice. And Ted Wolford, director of the Washington County Highway Department, was tired of the whole mess.
"I would be happy if April came tomorrow," Wolford said. "It just gets dreary after a while."
Sun staff writers Andrew Green, Mary Gail Hare and Ted Shelsby contributed to this article.