“Our product,” Mary Kay Warner said, “is very pure.”

Warner, who has been working in the road salt industry since 1997, is devout when it comes to salt. Describing her company’s product, she could have passed for a character on Breaking Bad, the television series about a talented crystal meth manufacturer.

“It’s very, very pure,” she said. “99.4 percent.”

Warner works in the communications department of International Salt, one of a handful of companies that jockey for position in Maine’s multimillion-dollar road salt market.

Salt is spread over thousands of miles of Maine roads to keep them clear and safe during the winter months. The state’s salt industry is large and will likely grow, with a new bagging factory expected to reach full capacity in South Portland this month.

Warner never used to think about where her salt came from.

“It was just something you went to the hardware store and purchased and spread on the ground, and it did its job,” she said.

But Warner’s eyes have been opened to the complexity of a supply chain that stretches halfway around the world, with a million moving parts that extract, transport, regulate and distribute small crystals at the heart of a big business.

If you put Maine’s entire population on one side of a scale, and put one year’s worth of road salt on the other, the salt would weigh more — about four times more, at an estimated billion pounds of salt each year, according to a 2010 University of Maine study.

“It was like, ‘Wow, all of this goes into this one product,’” Warner said. “It’s quite an amazing process.”

Meanwhile, Maine’s domestic salt industry is about to get a boost.

This winter, much of International’s salt will be processed at a newly completed factory at 1 Lincoln St., South Portland. The 28,000-square-foot building, which is really a fabric skin pulled tight over a galvanized steel frame, like a giant tent houses a massive pile of salt available for bulk purchases.

Chris Pizey, president of Lincoln Street Materials and Packaging, the company that runs the factory, said the company is new, but his trucking company has been managing the corporation’s salt supply chain in Maine for years.

Pizey said he bought the parcel of land right next to the marine terminal in South Portland with the intent of using it for convenient salt storage, but International decided to move its bagging operations from Pennsylvania to a local salt bagging operation.

Pizey said the deal, initiated over a year ago, was closed in July.

As soon as the automated bagging machinery arrives, the salt from Chile will be blended with chemical additives and sold to consumers as winter road de-icers under the names Arctic Thaw, C-Force, Halite, and Blizzard Wizard.

The automated bagging system conveys salt from bins into bags, and then stacks about a ton of bags on a pallet. Once “palletized,” the stack of bags is shrink-wrapped, tarped, shrink-wrapped again, and put on a truck headed for Home Depot, Lowes, hardware stores and other retailers.

“This thing will spit out a pallet of salt every three and a half minutes,” Pizey said. He expects to bag about 20,000 tons of salt a year at the factory, which will only keep its 10 new workers busy seasonally. He said he’ll be looking for other products to bag at the factory soon.

Where salt is born

The salt that lands on Maine’s roads is at the tail end of a journey that began long ago in a faraway land.

Specifically, 10 million years ago, where ancient seas dried up, leaving behind massive salt deposits in what is today northern Chile. International says there is enough salt in the Tarapaca Salt Flat to meet the needs of the entire world for at least 5,000 years. The salt deposit is such a significant natural resource that it was the focus of The War of the Pacific, a conflict between Chile, Peru and Bolivia that lasted from 1879 to 1884.

Flanked by two mountain ranges that deflect rain-bearing clouds, the salt flat lies in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. The desert averages a half-inch of rain each year, but that’s misleading because some weather recording stations, including at the salt flat, haven’t recorded any rain at all. For centuries.

“It’s a place where it hasn’t rained in 400 years,” said Robert George, a Salt International executive who has visited Chile about a dozen times.

Each visit involves a 12-hour flight to Santiago, and then a two-hour flight to Iquique, a port city near the mine. Then it’s a 40-mile drive by Jeep to the strip mine itself, a giant bowl-shaped depression in the earth with construction equipment eating away at its sides.

The most striking thing about the region, which has acted as a proxy for the surface of Mars in Hollywood films and NASA-funded experiments, is its endless drab color, George said.

“Everything is brown,” he said. “Everything. They even had a golf course where they put some strips of paint on the brown ground. That’s how they play golf in the desert.”

International Salt uses explosives to blast large ledges of the salt free, after which it is crushed, screened, and carried by truck to the sea, 40 miles away.

There, the trucks fill a ship, the largest possible size that can still squeeze through the Panama Canal, with 60,000 tons of salt. To put that into perspective, a dump truck could take six full loads a day out of the ship every single day, and still wouldn’t have emptied it in a year.

As big as the ships are, George said the company would like to use larger ones, once a project to widen the canal is completed.

Once the ship travels to Portland, Maine, a 4,300-mile journey that takes about 16 days to complete, it docks at Sprague Terminal, where cranes haul loads of salt from the belly of the ship.

“They are massive cranes,” Warner said. “When I was up in that big stairwell, I basically couldn’t look down.”

She said the crane operators guide huge grabbers into and out of the opening, narrow enough to leave little room for error.

At this point, the salt has survived the dangers of the open sea, but a new set of obstacles remain for International, which wants to bring its product to market at the highest possible price.

Salt sellers collide

“If you bring wet salt to us, you’re going to suffer a penalty on what we pay you.”

That’s from Brian Burne the Maine Department of Transportation highway maintenance engineer, who buys salt for the state through a competitive bid process.

He said he has to be tough on the salt companies to protect Maine residents.

“I have thrown out suppliers because they haven’t been paying enough attention to the quality of the material,” he said.

The state contract holds the salt companies to strict standards on gradation, purity levels, the presence of anti-caking agents and water content.

Before it can be sold, the salt must be cleared through U.S. Customs and inspected by an independent lab.

The state contract is for the salt needed for 8,350 miles of state road and any other communities in Maine that join in on the bulk purchase. In a rare show of unity, about 95 entities, mostly towns and cities but including the University of Maine, the Passamaquoddy tribe, and a few counties, take part in the state contract each year.

The competition for the state contract is fierce, with corporations like International Salt submitting bids worth millions of dollars for each of five different geographical regions.

“It’s extremely competitive,” Warner said. “You can have all the salt in the world, but if you don’t have the proper processes by which you can get it to that customer, you have nothing.”

International Salt is part of the Germany-based K+S Group, a conglomeration that includes European Salt Company and Morton Salt, two of the world’s most recognizable table salt brands. When the parent company bought Morton, it began calling itself the world’s largest salt producer, with a production capacity of more than 30 million tons a year. In mid-November, the company reported its salt business had grown by 9 percent over the previous year, with sales of more than $1.2 billion in the first nine months of 2013. Its supplies salt to the largest cities on the eastern seaboard, including New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore.

International Salt is large, but it’s not the only salt company in the country.

In all, 28 companies operate 67 salt plants in 16 states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, but only a handful compete for Maine’s state contract.

Maine’s other major salt companies include Eastern Salt Company, Cargill Salt and Harcros Chemicals.

Eastern, which is based in Massachusetts, is an underdog. The company only gained a toehold in the state after the Morton Salt acquisition, when monopoly concerns prompted the Federal Trade Commission to order International to give up some of its dock space.

Cargill mines 10,000 tons of salt every day from a 40-mile-long mine that extends under Cayuga Lake in Lansing, N.Y., the largest salt mine in North America. Cargill doubled in 1997 when it acquired the North American assets of Akzo Nobel salt, a company that continues to provide salt to parts of Europe.

Harcros, which also sources its salt from Chile, operates a storehouse in Searsport. Its salt operation is part of a larger slate of chemical products it sells from 28 branches in 20 states, including a Westbrook branch.

Nearly three quarters of the salt the U.S. imports comes from either Canada or Chile.

Every salt company touts its own product as the best. Some emphasize a smaller grain size, purity levels, low levels of corrosiveness or price.

Warner won’t concede ground on any of the virtues of International’s salt, but she is particularly enthusiastic about its Blizzard Wizard and other salt products that include chemical additives.

“A lot of salt companies add the blended ingredients topically,” she said. “We actually use equipment that blends everything together. Each salt crystal is encapsulated.”

The result is a superior product, she said, which is more likely to stick to the road, reducing the level of waste resulting from what those in the salt industry call “bounce and scatter” — the tendency of salt crystals to tumble off the blacktop before it has had a chance to do its work.

George said there is a significant amount of suspense before the state awards the winning bids.

“You never know anything until the envelopes are open,” he said.

Each company can bid on any region, as well as any town. It goes to the lowest bidder in each case, Burne said.

The price includes transportation, which Burne said is the major reason for the price difference between towns.

“If you’re somewhere close to Portland or Searsport, you’re going to get the best prices,” he said. Portland and Searsport have two of the state’s working ports, so salt that comes to Maine by ship arrives there.

In the northern part of the state, it becomes less expensive to get salt from Canadian mines, Burne said.

This year, Harcros won the middle three regions, which include Augusta and Waterville, International won the southern, which includes Portland, and Cargill won the northern.

Eastern didn’t win any.

“Eastern lost this last time around,” Burne said.

Price of salt

Ten years ago, when Burne first became involved with the state’s salt contract, the price of salt was about $30 a ton in Maine — not much more than dirt, which retails for about $20 a ton.

He said a combination of factors, including changes in China’s market and fuel prices, drove the average price up to about $70 per ton. Prices have come down a bit since, but they’re not what they used to be.

After traveling 4,300 miles by sea, it is the last leg of the journey that will determine the price of road salt for individual communities.

The state pays about $58 per ton in the MidCoast region, which includes Waterville and Augusta, and nearly $75 per ton in the northern region, a price spread Burne said is typical.

The price is constant across a region.

For example, in the Western region, both Farmington and Jackman pay the same amount, $67 per ton, even though Farmington is about 50 miles closer to the sea.

Not all communities are locked into the state contract. Some in central Maine go with a different joint contract offered by the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments.

Burne said towns were reluctant to join in on the state contract because they didn’t want to be locked into a purchase without knowing what the price is.

So the state changed the contract, allowing towns to consider the price, and then decide not to purchase.

While the opt-out option has convinced more communities to join the state contract, the end result has been higher prices for everyone, because salt sellers won’t offer the best price without a guaranteed volume, Burne said.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said. “When there’s uncertainty, the prices aren’t as good.”

Future solutions

In a world of concern about limited natural resources, when it comes to salt, the sky’s the limit.

The USGS concluded in its 2013 report that “world continental resources of salt are practically unlimited, and the salt content in the oceans is virtually inexhaustible.”

Maine’s annual road salt usage is largely dependent on how severe that winter was. In 2011, the most recent year on record, it used 126,000 tons, far more than the 73,000 tons reported in 2010. But USGS estimates point to as much as 319,000 tons distributed in Maine in 2001, the highest total in recent history.

The USGS also offered a flat assessment of salt’s long-term prospects as a deicer on Maine’s roadways.

“There are no economic substitutes or alternates for salt,” it read.

For now.

Burne said the state and public works directors are constantly looking for ways to use less salt, or to use salt alternatives, without compromising road safety.

He said the future of salt is clear — the state will use less of it.

“There’s this ever-increasing push for more roads and faster, but at the same time you have to look at minimizing the environmental impact,” he said.

Salt can be friend or foe, depending on who you talk to.

Environmentalists point to studies that have documented high levels of sodium and chloride — the chemicals you get when salt dissolves — in surface water and ground water. When water or soil gets too salty, it can kill certain native species, including salamanders, frogs, newts, white pine trees, and fish.

Salt is also a mixed blessing for roads and bridges. It’s a corrosive substance that eats away at metal, doing an unknown amount of vehicle damage and $7 billion in damage to public roads and bridges each year, according to a federal estimate.

The industry’s response to these concerns is simple: salt saves lives.

That’s the mantra at The Salt Institute, a non-profit trade association based in Alexandria, Va., that includes K+S, Cargill, and Akzo Nobel among its 37 corporate members from around the globe.

A 1992 study at Marquette University, paid for by the Salt Institute, found road salt reduces highway accidents in wintry conditions, their costs and their injury rates, by nearly 90 percent.

Only about 3 percent of the country’s salt winds up being eaten, but the institute’s administrators have also expended a lot of blood, sweat and tears — three salty bodily fluids — in pointing out that salt is essential to human life, with about a half pound of salt in the average person at any given time.

The Salt Institute is vehemently opposed to national dietary guidelines that recommend reducing salt intake, and has blasted the Centers for Disease Control for a paper on childhood salt consumption that linked sodium intake to obesity.

In order to address concerns about the impact salt has on the environment, road managers look for other products that will do the same job.

For example, the state and some communities have begun mixing salt with sugar-based additives.

Burne said the state’s preferred additive, a molasses-based product called Ice B’Gone, allows him to reduce the chloride content from about 30 percent to about 22 percent, “and you get every bit as good service out of it.”

The solution isn’t effective in all weather conditions, but his crews use it when they can.

Before towns used salt on their roads, a practice that began to spread about 70 years ago, they used sand instead. Many continue to use a mix of sand and salt on the roads.

Jeff Hall, public works director in Oakland, said future years will see an increase in salt demand, not a decrease.

Hall said warmer winters over the past 20 years have increased the need for salt, because snow clears off of cold roads more easily than it does warm ones. He said a snowstorm last Tuesday, which led to at least 25 early morning car accidents in Kennebec and Somerset counties, was a good example of snow that is difficult to handle.

“Everything was just right for it to pack,” he said. “The roads are getting packed quicker. And when the roads pack, you have to get rid of that ice with salt.”

As long as salt is tied to keeping roads open safely, it seems clear that it will continue to be an integral part of life in Maine.

One New York-based study found that closing the state’s roads in favor of salting would be cost-prohibitive, with a loss of $526.4 million in taxes, $600 million in lost retail sales, and $1.4 billion a day in unearned wages.

Greg Dore, the public works director in Skowhegan, spoke from the town’s public works garage after the season’s first snowfall on Tuesday. Without salt, he said, it would be impossible to keep the roads as safe as they are today. He speculated the town would be forced to use some sort of scraper, that would be slower, more expensive, and tougher on the roads.

The bottom line, he said, is that “the traveling public wouldn’t really tolerate” a world without salt.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 [email protected] Twitter: @hh_matt

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