Cleveland Rocks, and Provides Tons of Road Salt

A conveyor belt moves salt at a mine in Cleveland, Ohio. From the CBS Evening News, Feb. 7, 2011.

CLEVELAND - Seventy percent of the nation's roads receive more than 5 inches of snow annually. This year, if you've only got that much you're lucky. Monday night nearly one-third of the country is covered in snow or ice and another storm on the way.

CBS News correspondent Seth Doane reports by this time in winter, it's the only white stuff on the roads that you might welcome: salt.

Eighteen million tons of sodium chloride - salt - is scattered on U.S. roadways in a bad winter. That's enough to fill 1 million truckloads.

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The salt on the roads comes from well under them. CBS News took a five-minute elevator ride down 1,800 feet into a sprawling salt mine below the city of Cleveland.

The mine is completely dark. A labyrinth of salty corridors is revealed as we drive more than 20 minutes, two-and-a-half miles directly under Lake Erie.

Bob Supko, Cargill's Cleveland mine manager, is our guide.

"This would be one of your larger [salt mines]," says Supko.

It's estimated that there are 100 miles of tunnels and roadways deep inside the mine. It's almost like an underground city but everything is covered in salt. When you lick your lips you can even taste it.

This salt deposit formed 400 million years ago when an ancient sea dried up. Giant machines are used to scrape out 20 foot-high chunks of salt from a roughly 100-foot-thick layer of it. Front-end loaders transport it to conveyor belts. It's processed and then hoisted above ground.

One guy is pumping the walls here full of 1,000 lbs. of explosives that will be set off and what is shot here today will most likely be on the street tomorrow.

Seth Doane: "Where around the country will it go?"

Bob Supko: "Minnesota to the west to maybe Massachusetts to the east to Virginia to the south."

The Cleveland mine produces more than 3 million tons of salt a year. That's enough to fill more than 600 trucks every day in the winter. A truckload costs about $1,500.

"Salt is limitless," says the Salt Institute's Lori Roman. "We can mine it for the next thousand years and we would still have plenty of salt."

And there's still plenty of need for it with two months of winter to go.