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Road Salt Prices Skyrocket As Ohio's Price-Rigging Lawsuit Continues

Montgomery County purchased 13,000 tons of road salt last winter, up from a usual average of 10,000 pounds.
Lewis Wallace

It’s been a warm December, and that’s great news for Ohio counties paying high prices for road salt; the cost for many has doubled or tripled after a shortage last winter.

Meanwhile, the attorney general is pushing his legal case against the state’s two major salt suppliers. Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office filed suit in 2012 alleging that for years, Morton Salt and Cargill secretly agreed not to compete with each other in order to keep prices high. According to the AG’s office, the companies divvied up the state and agreed to bid high on certain counties in order to give the other the contract.

“We believe that they’re continuing to do this, and we want it stopped,” said DeWine.

Cargill vehemently denies the accusations, calling them unfounded “conspiracy theories” in an email. “Despite our full cooperation and the production of tens of thousands of documents, the state has made what we know are unfounded allegations and filed this suit. The Cargill Deicing Technology team takes its ethics and guiding principles seriously and we are looking forward to our day in court,” wrote Cargill representative Mike Klein. Morton didn’t reply to requests for comment by email and phone.

That case goes in front of a judge in May, and DeWine says he is hoping counties who purchased salt from Cargill in the years leading up to the lawsuit will be reimbursed for the extra money.

In the 1950s, Ohio leased two of its salt mines to Morton and Cargill in 99-year leases, which means the two companies control much of the in-state supply, particularly for the northeastern part of the state.

But even in other parts of the state, the shortage of salt is raising prices: Montgomery County gets salt from down south, through North American Salt, and county engineer Paul Gruner says last year’s price was $52 per ton, while this year it’s $113. Other areas have reported prices more than tripling since last winter. What’s more, North American Salt isn’t guaranteeing it will be able to fill all orders.

Gruner says the county will be trying to buy a minimum of salt, just 2,400 tons in the new year. In winter 2013-2014, the winter of the polar vortex, Montgomery County purchased 13,000 tons, up from 10,000 in an average year.

The solution folks are hoping for, for now: continued warm weather this winter.

Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.