School kids and skiers aren't the only ones who waited anxiously for a good snow.
Rukert Terminals Corp. on Baltimore's harbor handles the bulk of salt spread on icy roads from Southern Pennsylvania to Northern Virginia. The company normally stockpiles about a half-million tons of salt from Mexico and Chile before winter and receives more throughout the season.
But with the relatively snowless new year leading up to this weekend, the storage domes around town remained full and largely untouched. The piles at Rukert's operation on the Canton harbor front have grown taller, like giant, lonely icebergs adrift on a sea of asphalt off the banks of Interstate 95.
"I'm smiling when I scrape the ice off my windshield," said John L. Coulter, Rukert's president, whose scraper had sat idle for weeks this year.
Like other stevedoring firms, Rukert collects fees for unloading and storing the salt, and for the metals, fertilizers and other products it also handles. But because salt is a relatively cheap commodity, Rukert and other public and private terminals have to handle a lot of it to profit. The state of Maryland, for example, has paid an average of about $49 for a ton of salt - roughly the cost of a tank of gas for an SUV.
International Salt Co. LLC, a Pennsylvania subsidiary of a Chilean company that owns much of the road salt shipped along the East Coast, reported that salt sales for January, typically the snowiest month, were off about 50 percent.
"To have sales off by 50 percent is extraordinary," said chief executive Robert Jones last week. "We always plan for a normal to above-normal winter. We have a lot of salt available."
In Baltimore, a lot of it sits at Rukert, one of the region's largest and oldest private marine terminals. Rukert employs 140 people, including the fourth generation of family members. Salt is its biggest business by weight.
Salt of all kinds is in demand. The Salt Institute, a trade group, and government statistics show the world's salt production has grown to about 225 million tons a day from about 200 million a decade ago, with the United States being both the biggest producer and consumer.
Baltimore, New York and Boston handle the biggest percentages of the nation's imported salt, more than 11 million tons in 2005, according to PIERS Global Intelligence Solutions, a research firm.
Rukert also handles industrial salt for water purification and food products all year. And it expects orders for road salt to keep coming because more snow could be falling soon, the forecasters say.
One day recently, with Baltimore's harbor and Fort McHenry in the backdrop, another cargo ship arrived with its five holds brimming with salt.
Unloading the ship
A pair of three-man crews worked around the clock for four days to scoop it out with a high-speed gantry crane and grab bucket. The salt was loaded onto trucks and taken to Rukert's storage piles.
The ship's holds resemble playground sandboxes when viewed from the deck but contain more than enough salt to blanket the region during a snowstorm. The workers partially unload each hold because emptying one at a time could shift the balance of the ship so much that it breaks in half. A manager keeps a close watch.
When the levels of salt get low enough, a crane lowers a bulldozer into the hold to push the salt along the hull into a pile in the middle. When the hold becomes nearly empty, workers climb inside with brooms to extract the last bit.
The industrial salt that can end up in food or water is snowy white, and the crews take care to keep it pristine as they create piles using a conveyor belt. The salt cascades down the sides in small avalanches every few minutes.
The rock salt used on roads has more of a reddish hue because of trace minerals found in the salt mines in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Rock salt mounds are taller than the industrial piles because trucks are able to drive up the sides to stabilize and push them higher.
Also used on the roads is solar salt, which comes from beds off Mexico's Baja Peninsula where the ocean water evaporates. It looks similar to the rock salt, and governments choose it based on the luck they've had with one or the other, Rukert's Coulter said.
Within two weeks of being unloaded from the ships, salt piles form a natural crust that is strong enough for workers to walk on. That keeps them intact until delivery. From ship to storage, Rukert says, it loses one-half of 1 percent.
The imports come here and to the snowy North because most U.S. salt is produced too far away or it's the wrong kind and too expensive for use on roads.
Salt was first used in the 1930s to control ice and snow and grew more popular in later decades with increasing automobile traffic. It continues to be used on the roads because it's cheap and virtually inexhaustible, government and industry sources say.
Salt's environmental effects on waterways and surrounding habitat, as well as automobiles and metal bridges, are still under debate but most transportation officials have decided that there is no better alternative for de-icing the roads.
Mindful that salt is heavy in use this time of year, the University of Maryland's Home and Garden Information Center hands out advice on salt-resistant plants and on saving trees, sidewalks and the Chesapeake Bay through its Web site, www.hgic.umd.edu and a phone line.
Turns plants brown
A horticulture consultant there, Ellen Nibali, said salt hits the roots and sucks moisture out of the plants and trees, turning them brown.
The Salt Institute says safety keeps salt on the roads. Its research shows that winter road conditions cause about one-third of automobile crashes, which costs the economy an enormous but undetermined amount of lost time and damage.
When salt comes in contact with snow it creates a brine that freezes at a lower temperature than water. Salt keeps the snow or ice from bonding with the underlying pavement and causes melting, according to experts at the U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Resource Program. The brine's grainy texture also provides traction for cars driving on it.
Kellie Boulware, a State Highway Administration spokeswoman, said Maryland has about 96 storage domes of salt around the state, but has not needed as much this year as last. Most has been spread in the colder, more mountainous Western Maryland.
Coulter said Rukert is ready to restock salt piles locally and to the north.
Winter's mild start was welcomed by homeowners expecting huge heating bills and by local governments fearing for their snow removal budgets. But perhaps the salt mounds building on the waterfronts from Baltimore to Boston will have reason to shrink yet.