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GF vendors still unscathed in helium shortage

The local impact of a national helium shortage has been minimal, Grand Forks helium vendors say. According to John Flaagan, Grand Forks manager at Praxair, prices have gone up slightly, but Praxair has had enough helium in stock to take care of i...

The local impact of a national helium shortage has been minimal, Grand Forks helium vendors say.

According to John Flaagan, Grand Forks manager at Praxair, prices have gone up slightly, but Praxair has had enough helium in stock to take care of its clients. "We always make sure we have enough stock to keep our customers going," he said. "We're sitting on plenty of helium cylinders here."

Airgas manager Mary Ringstad said the same is true at her business. "We've been keeping up with our demand in town," she said. The St. Paul Pioneer Press recently reported that some businesses in the Twin Cities area were struggling to deal with the shortage. The report said the owner of a Minneapolis balloon emporium raised prices 8 percent to 10 percent after the business' helium distributor increased prices by 30 percent in November.

In Florida, the Miami Herald reported that some stores were limiting the amount of balloons customers could buy for parties and special occasions.

Although the shortage does not appear to be impacting Grand Forks yet, Red River Welders Supply branch manger Ken Luney is expecting to see a change in price in the near future. "(Distributors) will probably see more price increases in the next few months," he said.

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Helium has a variety of uses. Perhaps the most obvious is to fill balloons, but the gas is also used for research and in the medical field. In its liquid form, the gas is used to cool superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

Altru spokesperson Julie Jeske said the hospital has a contract with its helium vendor that includes a fixed price for the gas. As a result, Altru has not been affected by the shortage.

At the national level, the supply of helium has been tight for months. Joe Peterson, assistant field manager for helium resources at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Amarillo, Texas, Field Office, said there have been a variety of causes for the shortage.

Due to recent maintenance and weather problems the BLM's Amarillo plant, which supplies 42 percent of the nation's and 35 percent of the world's helium, has periodically been running at less than its full capacity.

Furthermore, international openings of new helium refineries in Qatar and Algeria have been delayed. "We're still getting reports from the plants overseas and they are not up to full capacity as of yet," Peterson said.

The Amarillo facility is now operating at its maximum capacity, however, helium prices will probably remain high for the time being. "Overall, the helium market is still pretty tight right now, and we're not sure when the situation may turn around," Peterson said.

Edison reports on business. Reach him at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or jedison@gfherald.com .

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