on February 15, 2014 - 8:46 PM
HAMPTON CORNERS – The story of this brutal winter may best be told 60 miles east of Buffalo, where a mine runs as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.
It’s here where you’ll find a couple hundred miners 1,300 feet below ground working nine-hour shifts, seven days a week to keep up with the nation’s voracious appetite for this season’s hottest commodity: Salt.
It’s been crucial for de-icing the thousands of miles of slippery roads this winter, whether you’re in Buffalo or Atlanta or somewhere in between.
“You can’t keep up,” Joe Bucci said. “It’s impossible.”
Bucci, 69, is one of the owners of American Rock Salt, situated just off the I-390, a few miles from SUNY Geneseo.
The old mine in nearby Retsof collapsed in 1994, and when the Dutch owners decided not to rebuild, Bucci and partners Gunther Buerman and Neil Cohen opened American Rock Salt, bringing back the long, proud mining tradition to Livingston County.
Sitting atop a thick seam of salt that runs through to Ohio, American Rock Salt and its 10,000 acres of mineral rights is billed as the largest salt mine in the United States, producing more than 4 million tons a year. The mine will churn out salt for at least the next 80 years.
But this year, the problem is getting the salt out of the ground fast enough to meet pent-up demand from snowstorm after snowstorm pounding away at so many parts of the United States. That happened again just last week across the Northeast and South.
Less than three months ago, the company had 700,000 tons of salt stockpiled for the winter at its facility on Route 63. The salt reached as high as 80 feet and covered an area the size of 3½ football fields.
It’s all gone.
Now, just as soon as the salt can be hoisted to the surface, there’s a tractor trailer or box car waiting to haul it away to customers scattered across New York and 11 other states throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
Even the most prepared communities are ordering tons more salt to get through this winter, only to find they need to get in line.
“We’re getting low,” said John Loffredo, public works commissioner of Erie County, which buys from American Rock Salt, “and the delivery has trickled down quite a bit.”
The price has also gone up 20 percent per ton, said Thomas Best, highway superintendent in Hamburg, another longtime customer.
“Usually one phone call and they’re here in two days,” said Best, who was waiting for a delivery to come in at the end of last week. “They’re getting a little behind.”
Sales at American Rock Salt have skyrocketed anywhere from 50 to 75 percent after the past two years with mild winters.
Last week, the plant had 1,000 calls from customers – and that was on Monday alone.
Just as many trucks roll through here in a day to load up on salt.
“This,” said plant manager Greg Norris, “is the winter from heaven.”
It all means the 310 union laborers and supervisors at the mine are working around the clock in three shifts to crank up supply.
As of Friday, they were on their 44th straight day of work.
Sundays are double-time – one of the reasons prices have gone up – and the fat paychecks will easily push many union salaries above $60,000 this year.
Layoffs are unlikely this summer, too. American Rock Salt will need a full slate of workers to replenish its stockpiles both at this site and in 22 locations across the Northeast.
But working in the salt mines is a tough line of work. And as Bucci well knows there are dangers down below in the darkness.
His father was killed 40 years ago in a methane explosion at the mine in Retsof.
“Our guys are working seven days a week,” Bucci said. “It’s very difficult for the general public to realize how hard it is for guys to come to work seven days a week and go underground.”
‘This is all salt’
The cage is a 16-foot-long, 10-foot-wide service elevator that carries miners for the two-minute descent to the bottom.
At the entrance to the mine, there’s a statue of St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, to their left. To the right is a small ranch built as an office where their assignment for the day is posted and the foremen are briefed during shift change.
“Hectic,” mine manager Dan Anzalone said, when describing his day.
Down below, the temperature stays a consistent 58 degrees year round, and you can taste the salt that’s in the air and on your clothes.
But it’s relatively roomy.
The tunnels measure 55 feet wide and 14 feet high, and it’s a little like working in a warehouse with no windows, said Lee McKinney, 40, the mine’s safety coordinator.
“This is all salt,” said McKinney, pointing at the walls. “Everything you see.”
The underground tunnels meander for miles like a sprawling maze and there are dozens of all-terrain vehicles and heavy equipment that had to be squeezed down the shaft – some piece by piece – to help the miners get around and do their jobs.
There’s one substation above and one below power the mine, but there’s little overhead lighting. The light on your vehicle or miner’s helmet guides you.
McKinney turns off both to make the point.
It’s a darkness few ever experience.
“Everybody thinks they’ve seen dark,” McKinney said. “That’s dark.”
Inside the mine
The underground has some modern conveniences, like microwaves to warm your lunch or mini-fridges to keep your drinks cold.
There’s an entire mine shop down below to maintain all the vehicles and equipment, along with rows of shelves stocked with a huge supply of parts to fix anything that breaks.
And with the mine running at full throttle, there’s a lot that can break down.
“What’s happening?” McKinney said as he stopped to talk to one of the foremen.
“The cutter’s down,” the foreman said.
“C’mon,” McKinney said in frustration.
The cutter looks like an oversized chain saw with a 10-foot long, carbide-tipped blade used to cut into the wall at the base so the mine floor is smooth when the salt is blasted.
That’s the job of rookie Rob Goins.
“It’s not like any other job I used to have,” said Goins, 23.
The former lab technician has been working at American Rock Salt for only a little more than a month.
“Working underground, there’s different considerations,” he said, “but we’re pretty good down here. There’s not a lot of things to worry about. You just have to pay attention.”
Fatalities in salt mines are relatively few compared to mining coal, and McKinney is happy to say American Rock Salt has had none.
“We don’t want them doing anything that puts themselves in danger while they’re down here,” McKinney said. “We want everyone to come here, do their job and go home. They need this place – and we need them to come back the next day.”
A way of life
Chamber by chamber, holes are drilled to drop in the explosives and the blasts are done nightly on second shift. Each blast advances the mine another 10 feet and deposits 420 tons of salt.
Large chunks are scooped up by load-haul dump trucks, then ground down enough by machine to be pushed onto the automated conveyor belt winding through the mine.
Josh Adamson was a farmer before he started working underground more than five years ago.
“My first day here I was a little nervous,” said Adamson, 26, a heavy equipment operator, “but you get used to it.”
The chunks of salt on the conveyor belt eventually find their way to a part of the mine where it’s crushed down to quarter-inch size and screened.
That’s where you’ll find John “Bullet” Stoddard, who was perched inside a tiny shed monitoring the process on a computer monitor.
Working nine hours a day underground isn’t for everyone, but Stoddard likes it. He’s worked in the salt mines for 14 years.
“I was a landscaper for years,” Stoddard said. “There’s no bugs down here. You don’t have to swat flies.”
From below, the salt goes into two huge containers operated by an automated pulley system that alternately hoists them up and down a second mine shaft every 76 seconds.
Up, down, up, down for 20 hours a day.
As the salt rises to the surface, it continues up through a tall tower overlooking the plant.
The salt makes its way onto another conveyer belt system where it can be dumped through chutes onto the ground.
Or into the waiting trucks below.