Exploring the Cleveland Salt Mine

Ever wonder where road departments get the mountains of salt they use each winter? Here in the Northeast, the answer can be found deep under Lake Erie. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray has the story.

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OPEN: Ever wonder where road departments get the mountains of salt they use each winter? Here in the northeast, the answer can be found deep under Lake Erie. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray has the story.

NAT SOUND; INSIDE ELEVATOR;
ORVOSH: Step right in there. MURRAY: OK thanks. NAT SOUND: Clank, clank. ORVOSH: It's about a four and a half minute ride to the bottom. 1800 ..about 1800 feet.

MURRAY: For Don Orvosh, an elevator ride nearly 2000 feet underground is just part of the daily grind. Orvosh supervises the Cleveland salt mine - one of only 11 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 know there's a mine right here.
MURRAY: Are you all the way down? ORVOSH: We're at the bottom right now. This is it.

NAT SOUND: AIR LOCK DOOR OPENS:

MURRAY: A few feet from the elevator, Orvosh walks through a series of air- locked metal doors. They rotate to reveal a subterranean repair shop. (NAT SOUND: TRUCKS MOVING AROUND CHAMBER) 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, workers travel this salt encrusted labyrinth by truck or tram.

ORVOSH: We're going to get in this little buggy here now. (NAT SOUND: GETTING INO GATOR) and in a couple minutes we'll be under the lake..NAT SOUND:13.30 Starts gator engine and it starts to run.

MURRAY: 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 1860s. As Orvosh drives north through the dark passageways, he says salt wasn't extracted here until many years later.

ORVOSH: 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.

MURRAY: 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. Huge pillars of salt shoulder the mine's 20 foot high ceiling here.

ORVOSH: (THE GATOR IS IDLING) This is an active production section (here). This is where we are mining salt.

MURRAY: What's happening here? ORVOSH: He's drilling the face.

MURRAY: The miner maneuvers 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.

NAT SOUND Load of salt going by in big trucks.

MURRAY: 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. NAT SOUND: FEEDER BREAKER: 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 and one half 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. NAT SOUND: LOUDSPEAKER IN UNDERGROUND LUNCHROOM. But Robert Springer, a 27-year veteran at this operation, says each mine fights for a market share.

ORVOSH: It is a competitive market. There's another salt mine out there in the Cleveland area, Morton
MURRAY: Do you look forward to icy days to keep production up?
ORVOSH: 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.

NAT SOUND : MIX TRUCKS LOADING AND WEATHER REPORT: UNDER
MURRAY: Back on the surface, Bob Springer has gotten his wish: Cleveland has just been hit with an ice 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.

From deep under Lake Erie, this is Ann Murray.