MILWAUKEE — As the boat appeared to the east through the rising steam on an Arctic-like morning, the freighter was just a bump on the Lake Michigan horizon.
A sliver of the moon hung to the south as day began to break. The Allen Bradley thermometer tower was at zero and the crowd began to grow in the shadow of the revamped American Family Insurance Amphitheater still awaiting its first concert.
The Milwaukee Pierhead Lighthouse, adjacent to the Summerfest grounds, is a popular public park to catch a sunrise, salmon or smelt. But on Tuesday of last week the Algoma Sault, growing as it motored west toward the gap in the break wall, was the focus of those toting their cameras, some of which were affixed on tripods, one attached to a drone.
The cargo, more than 25,000 tons of road salt and hidden from the nautical-enthused paparazzi, is a Wisconsin winter staple.
“There’s a lot of people here and a lot of people have been talking about it,” said Aaron Hamm, who was operating a drone from the driver’s seat of his heat-infused, four-door sedan. “I just think it’s great to get the unique shot and unique boat breaking through the ice. I’m really excited to see it break through that stuff. It’s not too often you get to see a big ship.”
Big boats are a draw, but Hamm may want to get better acquainted with the shipping schedules for the Port of Milwaukee.
Located on Jones Island, just south of the city’s downtown, the port is one of the biggest on the Great Lakes, and freighters like the Algoma Sault bring in salt about 200 times a year. Scores of other ships use the port for loading and unloading corn, soybeans, machinery and cement.
Salt, however, is the major player. The evidence is on display in the form of towering piles and, at this time of the year, the hundreds of trucks that can arrive daily to pick up loads that will ultimately be spread on city streets, town roads, state and county highways and interstate systems in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. As of last week, port officials estimated there was about 1.2 million tons of road salt piled up at the port. There can be as much as 1.6 million tons on site.
The salt boats aren’t just a winter thing, either. They arrive year-round.
“They’re basically dump trucks,” Wayne Johnson, the port’s harbormaster, said of the ships. “They haul it in, they dump it off and then go and get more.”
And more often than not, the source of the salt is Goderich, Ontario, home to the world’s largest underground salt mine. Operating since 1959 and located 1,800 feet under Lake Huron, the mine is as deep as the CN Tower in Toronto is tall, according to a website for Compass Minerals, which acquired the mine in 1990.
The salt is shipped to hundreds of communities around the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Some is packaged for deicing and water softeners and sold at retailers throughout North America. The salt is also sold in bulk to manufacturers for the production of plastics, detergents, disinfectants and animal nutrition products. Some is even turned into table salt.
But the company’s biggest business is road salt. Ports in Green Bay and Duluth/Superior close each winter due to ice, but the Milwaukee port is open year round. It’s one of the biggest receivers of salt in the country, which helped the port handle 2.8 million tons of goods in 2020, a 5% increase over 2019.
A healthy port
“Really remarkable, the resiliency of the Port of Milwaukee given what has proven to be a challenging economic climate with COVID-19,” said Adam Tindall-Schlicht, the port’s director. “We have been focused at the port for many, many years on commodity diversification. We’ve been able to identify new commodities and new opportunities that will help us grow our business in the future.”
The DeLong Co., founded as a grain company in the Rock County village of Clinton in 1913, will break ground this year on a $31 million agricultural export terminal at the port. The facility will be designed to export dry distillers grain, a co-product of the ethanol production process. The grain, because it is dried, has a longer shelf life, improving its ability to be shipped over longer distances, and is used as a low-cost, highly nutritious feed ingredient for livestock and poultry.
The DeLong project is expected to be the first of its kind on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway system but will also be used to export Midwest-grown soybeans, corn and grain. Michels Corp. is expanding its marine construction facility, Pearl Seas has a new agreement for its long-term cruise operation in Milwaukee, and Viking has announced that its Expedition cruises plying the Great Lakes will use the port beginning in 2022.
The increased diversification of the port comes as many communities are making a concerted effort to reduce their reliance on salt.
Salt use shrinks
Allison Madison was hired in June as the first staff person for Wisconsin Salt Wise, an organization formed in 2014 to help educate community leaders about the harmful impacts that road salt and water softener salt can have on the environment, particularly on lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water.
Efforts to reduce salt use have included mixing road salt with water to create a brine that is more effective and results in less waste. Technology that helps plow truck drivers better calibrate their salt delivery systems to more efficiently spread salt while at the same time maintaining the same level of safety is also helping the cause, Madison said.
The city of Cudahy, for example, has gone from 2,000 tons of salt a year to about 660 tons by properly calibrating equipment and investing in new technology. On state-owned roads last season, the state used 101,805 tons less than expected when compared to the five year average, a savings of $8 million.
“It’s not just a more-is-better situation. Salt is a really powerful tool,” Madison said. “But it doesn’t disappear. It all goes into our water. So we want to be smart about its use.”
The price of salt has also risen to about $80 a ton. In 2002, a ton of salt was about $30. On average in Wisconsin, about 12 tons of salt are used per lane per mile each winter season but the use varies widely. Pepin, Green Lake, Richland, Crawford and Jefferson counties used between five tons and 5.5 tons per lane mile last season while Dunn, Florence and Oneida used between 18.1 and 18.8 tons per lane mile. Dane County ranks 60th out of 72 counties by using 15.1 tons per lane mile, according to data from the state Department of Transportation.
“While every year and every storm is different, we are always striving for the best mix of equipment, dry and liquid materials and plow drivers to get the roads cleared and safe for the traveling public as efficiently, economically and environmentally consciously as possible,” said Jerry Mandli, Dane County’s highway commissioner. “We are seeing a drop in our salt use. Some of the trucks toward the end of a storm will go to a higher percentage of brine and are seeing really positive results.”
The city of Middleton has historically used 1,200 to 1,300 tons of salt a year and was dipping into its 500 tons of salt in reserve. That’s no longer the case thanks to better and more advanced equipment and the use of brine. The city is now buying about 1,000 tons of salt a year, and that number is headed down, said Brad Hopwood, the city’s operations manager.
“At the end of the year, we’re having more and more salt in our salt shed, so we have to start lowering our numbers in terms of how much we have to order each year,” Hopwood said. “It’s starting to save money in the long run.”
Back at the Port of Milwaukee, salt boats will continue to be needed for years to come, but it could mean fewer trips for boats like the Algoma Sault, constructed in China in 2017. The Sault (pronounced “soo,” like Sault Sainte Marie, a French word meaning “rapids”) was put into service in 2018 and now makes multiple trips a year between Goderich and Milwaukee.
The 740-foot-long ship with a capacity of 37,367 tons, had to break through massive slabs of broken ice last week as it made its way into the harbor. Once docked, it used its built-in off-loading system that includes a conveyor on the bottom of the cargo hold that feeds salt to a conveyor boom that extended out over idle train cars and onto a pad more than 100 feet from the boat.
As the piles grew, trucks from Oconomowoc, Lomira, Oak Creek and Bristol, among others, waited in line for a front end loader to fill their beds.
“This salt they’re floating now will be gone in two or three days,” Johnson, the harbormaster said. “You can see the amount of trucks we have here. Days like this, after snowy weather, we get numerous trucks down here. They haul it away and it’s gone. They don’t stop.”