Exploring a Great Lakes Salt Mine

  • Salt is an essential resource for all people, especially those who live in areas where the roads get icy. (Photo by Lucian Binder)

Ever wonder where road departments get the mountains of salt they use each winter? Here in the Midwest, the answer can be found deep under Lake Erie. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray has the


Ever wonder where road departments get the mountains of salt
they use each winter? Here in the Midwest, the
answer can be found deep under Lake Erie. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Ann Murray has the story:

Orvosh: “Step right in there.”

Murray: “Ok, thanks.”

For Don Orvosh, an elevator ride nearly 2000 feet underground is just part of the daily grind.

(sound of clanking)

“It’s about a four and a half minute ride to the bottom. 1800… about 1800 feet.”

Orvosh supervises the Cleveland salt mine owned by Cargill Corporation. It’s one of only eleven active salt mines in the country. The mine lies beneath the northern edge of Cleveland and extends about four miles under Lake Erie.

Orvosh: “Most people in the city don’t even realize there’s a mine right here.”

Murray: “Are you all the way down?”

Orvosh: “We’re at the bottom right now. This is it.”

(sound of opening air-lock door)

A few feet from the elevator, Orvosh walks through a series of air-locked metal doors. They rotate to reveal a subterranean repair shop. Massive dump trucks and cranes are fixed here. The cavernous room is also the starting point for hundreds of miles of tunnels. These tunnels connect a honeycomb of old and active areas in the mine. Everyday, 150 workers travel this salt encrusted labyrinth by truck or tram.

“We’re going to get in this little buggy here now and in a couple minutes we’ll be under the lake.”

Lake Erie is a geological newcomer compared to the salt buried below it. This bed – extending from upper New York to Michigan – was formed 410 million years ago. That’s when an ancient sea retreated and left behind its brine. Oil drillers accidentally discovered the deposit in the 1860’s. As Orvosh drives north through the dark passageways, he says salt wasn’t extracted here until many years later.

“This shaft was sunk in the late fifties and the actual mining of salt occurred, started in the early sixties so it’s been here 40 plus years.”

In the last four decades, the mining process has stayed pretty much the same. Orvosh compares it to the room and pillar method used in underground coal extraction. He points up ahead to a brightly lit chamber. Machine generated light bounces off the room’s briny, white walls. Its 20 foot high ceiling is bolstered by pillars of salt the size of double-wide trailers.

Orvosh: “This is an active production section. This is where we are mining salt.”

Murray: “What’s happening here?”

Orvosh: “He’s drilling the face here.”

A miner sits atop a machine with a large needle nosed drill. It bores six holes into the seam. Later in the day, workers will load explosives in the holes and blow out big chunks of salt. Farther into the mine, the loose salt from last night’s blasting is being scooped up by front-end loaders and dumped into a crusher. All of the big chunks are broken into small pieces. Then the salt is loaded on conveyor belts and sent to the mine’s three-story-high underground mill. Salt is crushed, sized, screened and sent to the surface by elevator.

All told, the crews at the Cleveland mine produce two million tons of salt a year. A sizable chunk of the 15 million tons of salt used on icy US roads each winter. Demand for road salt has skyrocketed since it was introduced as a de-icer in the early 1950s. But Robert Springer, a 27- year veteran at this operation, says each mine fights for a market share.

Springer: “It is a competitive market. There’s another salt mine just in the Cleveland area, out there in Morton, Morton Salt.”

Murray: “We needed you today. The roads were really icy. Do you look forward to icy days to keep production up?”

Springer: “I guess you could say we look forward to bad weather. We enjoy the bad weather because we know there’s going to be salt used.”

(sound of radio and weather report)

Back on the surface, Bob Springer has gotten his wish… Cleveland has just been hit with a winter storm. At least a dozen trucks swing through the mine’s loading dock to pick up tons of salt. Later in the day, salt will be dumped onto barges and transported across the Great Lakes to places like Chicago and Toronto. This is high season for road salt. The crews here know that come March, they’ll start rousing salt from its ancient bed for the winter of 2006.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Ann Murray.

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