Crews combat winter’s punch

Salt shortages, breakdowns, long hours don’t deter plows

GREENPORT—“Great, it’s another day in paradise,” said Columbia County Highway Superintendent Bernie Kelleher when asked how things are going in his department this winter.

Mr. Kelleher spoke to The Columbia Paper in a Tuesday phone interview, the day after the long-duration snowstorm that came in Sunday and departed in the wee hours Tuesday morning, adding another half foot or more to the fluffy white blanket already enrobing the countryside.

His crew of 59 men, 29 trucks plus 8 supervisors and mechanical staff cleared roads Sunday till about 9 p.m., then came back in at 4 a.m. Monday and worked until the job was done, Mr. Kelleher said, noting, “They’ve worked a lot of hours, they’re like zombies today.”

While highway personnel answer the call of duty, the equipment does not always oblige. Many breakdowns have plagued the fleet because the relentless onslaught of snow has left little time for preventative maintenance. When the trucks aren’t out plowing they are being used to haul sand. Just like the crew, the machinery needs a break, Mr. Kelleher said.

Damaged plow parts have been routine and now on the newer trucks, electronics gone haywire have thrown a monkey wrench into the works.

Mr. Kelleher said he had a two-year-old truck “just quit.” The only way to deal with the shutdown it is to tow the truck to the dealer, who then has to hook it up to a computer to diagnose the problem. While the newer trucks have proven temperamental “the old ones keep plugging along,” he said.

Past winter wisdom that it doesn’t snow when it gets very cold has not proven true this year, said the highway chief. “Years ago you never heard of it snowing when the temperature was five degrees or lower.”

In terms of salt, Mr. Kelleher said he used 56% of his budget for salt for the year in the first six weeks of 2015.

Salt deliveries are very slow because the demand is high and the delivery trucks, which are delayed by snowstorms, can’t keep up. The county uses sodium chloride–rock salt–to melt snow and ice. Mr. Kelleher said “enhanced” salt products treated with chemicals or in some cases beer hops to make it work at lower temperatures are available but are expensive and the county does not spend the extra money.

Over in Copake, Highway Boss Bill Gregory says, so far the winter is going OK.

Salt deliveries are slow, but still coming and so far he’s gotten everything he’s ordered.

The trucks are holding up fairly well, though there have been a couple of breakdowns. A busted hydraulic pump on one truck left it sitting idle for two snowstorms.

The Copake Highway Department has two pickup trucks and six plow trucks in its winter weather arsenal, one each manned by Mr. Gregory and his crew of seven, who are responsible for clearing 57 miles of road. The days have been long, with the battle against this last storm beginning Sunday morning with some preemptive salt and sand. Crews were on the roads from 3:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday, then back at it again at 4 a.m. Tuesday.

Mr. Gregory said he’s not too worried about the upcoming frigid cold predictions, noting, “We’ll be OK if the sun’s out, snow will be melting during the day.”

In Chatham, Highway Superintendent Joe Rickert said of his salt supply, “I am just about out.”

He’s had 150 tons of regular salt and 100 tons of treated salt on order for two weeks. After calling his supplier, he said he expects one 35-ton load on Friday, but the 10 or 12 tons he currently has on hand are not enough to deal with the “clipper” predicted for Thursday. They’ll do the best they can by mixing the salt on hand with sand.

The highway fleet of two tandem trucks, five single-axle trucks, three one-ton trucks and three pickups is holding up well, with just a few minor breakdowns that have been remedied with quick repairs. “We’ve been pretty fortunate,” Mr. Rickert said.

With his winter storm crew of 17, Mr. Rickert is responsible for clearing 97.35 miles of road, 57 of those miles are dirt. The highway chief said it’s best to keep salt out of the mix on dirt roads, because it “creates too much heat” resulting in mud. “You’re better off keeping a hard pack of a couple of inches [of snow] on the dirt surfaces if possible,” he said. It serves as insulation, he explained, preventing the frost from “going so deep.”

The Chatham Highway crew put in 16-hour-days during the most recent long-duration storm and Mr. Rickert said he believes they have only had one weekend off so far this winter.

Personally, he had to work through a couple of storms while running a fever and feeling under-the-weather with the flu. Next year he vows to get the shot.

As far as where his budget stands, Mr. Rickert said he hasn’t had time to sit down and do the numbers.

“This winter needs to turn around,” he said, not eager to speculate about what will happen if it doesn’t.

At the Claverack Highway Department, Superintendent Louis Lamont said other than being a bit tired after dealing with the latest storm, “We’re doing great.”

He’s got 500 tons of salt in the shed and more ordered. He expects delivery in a week and a half. The usual delivery time is three to five days.

The crew hauls in sand from the Carney and Red Wing gravel pits. The department has six big trucks, seven full-time and six part-time staff. They deal with 68 miles of road.

The equipment is holding up “fine, knock on wood” and, in fact, the department has two spare trucks, one of which is now on loan to the Taghkanic Highway Department, Mr. Lamont said.

The Claverack road crew hit the highways on Sunday during the latest storm, worked from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., took a short break, worked from 5:30 p.m. to midnight, were back at 3:30 a.m. Monday till midnight, then were back again at 4 a.m. Tuesday.

Mr. Lamont uses a mix of sand and salt to give the road surface “some grit” and prevent refreezing at night.

Asked what he will do when the Antarctic blast arrives later this week, he said, “Stay inside!”

He doesn’t expect the cold to raise havoc with the roads even with the one-to-three-inch snowfall expected Thursday. “The sun still has a lot of power,” he noted.

Reflecting on this season based on his 31 years on the job, Mr. Lamont said, “We’ve had hard winters and no winters and this one is normal.”

To contact Diane Valden email

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