Mild winters lead to profits slump in Antrim salt mine
Mild winters have contributed to a drop in profits of around 70% to £1.6m at a Co Antrim salt mine owned by an American family.
Irish Salt Mining & Exploration in Carrickfergus has capacity to produce up to 0.5m tonnes of de-icing rock salt every year - much of which makes its way onto Northern Ireland's roads during the winter.
But in the year to November 31, 2014, pre-tax profits dropped from £5.9m to £1.6m at the mine, which is Ireland's only source of rock salt.
Turnover was down by around 50% to £11.9m at the firm, which employs 55 people.
And economist John Simpson said the mild winter could be the culprit for the company's weaker profits.
"It is probable that there was less demand from their rock salt from under Kilroot than they expected, and profits have therefore taken a hit," he said.
"They are facing a much reduced profit margin on a reduced takeover."
The company's directors are Shelagh and Kathleen Mahoney, both of whom live in America.
Shelagh's late father Leo was one of the founders of the company, along with his brothers Dave and Dan. They started out in business with their family's business Mahoney Coal, Coke & Ice, in Lowell, Massachusetts.
With brothers Dave and Dan, he founded Eastern Minerals, which became one of the biggest suppliers of road salt in the US. Leo Mahoney travelled extensively - and in the 1960s, he and his brothers revived a collapsed salt mine in Northern Ireland, which became the Irish Salt Mining & Exploration Company Ltd.
Billy Ashe, the Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, said the company had long played a role in Carrickfergus. "In the past the Mahoneys were very influential in Carrickfergus, and were instrumental in the twinning of Carrickfergus with Portsmouth, New Hampshire."
And while public sector cuts have eaten into the provision made for certain aspects of the Department for Regional Development's work, a spokeswoman confirmed road salting would not be affected.
"While the department's resource budget for 2015/16 is insufficient to provide normal levels of routine road maintenance, TransportNI is preparing to provide a winter service and all salt stocks are currently being replenished."
Irish Salt Mining & Exploration is not the only firm in the Co Antrim area to make use of rich salt deposits in its earth. Irish energy company Gaelectric is to use salt deposits on the east Antrim coast for energy storage. The deposits are found in only limited locations in the UK and on the European mainland.