The salt of the earth

Deep below upstate New York's farm country, workers in ghostly tunnels are praying for snow.

Fiercer winters mean better business, longer hours and fatter paychecks at what's billed as the nation's most productive salt mine, which ships trainloads of snow-melting road salt to municipalities across the Northeast. And when the snow keeps falling and supplies run low, miners have to step up production to meet demand in real time.

"We live and die by the weather," said Joe Bucci Jr., environmental manager for American Rock Salt Co., which mines a sprawling seam of salt south of Rochester that was left from a sea that dried up 400 million years ago.

That deposit is accessible today by a cage elevator that descends more than 1,200 feet, about as deep as the Empire State Building is high. Miners drive through a vast grid of tunnels to blast out and haul crystals that glimmer in their headlamps.

No matter the season, the temperature in the mine remains 60 degrees. Salt lingers in the air, and miners swear it does wonders for their sinuses.

"I've always considered it coming down to a health spa every day," miner John Goho said with a smile.

But salt mining is a serious, sometimes dangerous business, practiced in this western New York countryside since the days of mules and pickaxes more than a century ago.

America produces up to 4.3 million tons of salt a year, though it hoisted less last year because of the mild winter. Despite a big storm in the Northeast last week, this year has so far been a mixed bag for snow. But there is still time left and much at stake for the mine's 350 workers, who can earn more than $80,000 with overtime in a busy winter.

They remove the deposits with a room-and-pillar approach: using explosive blasts to loosen the salt, while leaving pillars of salt in place to support the overhead layers. Loaders scoop up the blasted salt, some in chunks as big as file cabinets, into a rock-crushing maw and then onto miles of conveyor belts. Machines then crush it further into crystals that are too impure for use as food, but perfect for spreading on icy and snowy roads.

"Our salt, you wouldn't want to put it on your french fries," Bucci joked as he steered a utility vehicle along a long corridor.

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