GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.- Grabbing a card and Valentine’s Day balloon at Cathy’s Hallmark on Northland Dr. in Grand Rapids, isn’t a popular option this year. There is a helium shortage that’s not only affecting West Michigan, but the nation.
“We’ve gone up probably 50 percent in our prices and the helium tanks have probably gone up three to four times, so we’ve tried to keep them reasonable, because you don’t want to out price so nobody buys any, but it’s been real tough.” owner Cathy Gnewkowski said.
For the past 20 years, Cathy has used Helium Distributors out of Saginaw, owned by Larry Wachowicz. He said tanks used to go for around $75, but over the past six months have jumped to roughly $120. Larry explained that there are a few different things amounting into one big thing. Helium is a by-product found when drilling for natural gas, he explained, and basically they are finding new ways to drill that doesn’t involve the helium. Therefore, two major mines in Texas that hold the helium are not getting replenished. Also, one of those mines has been closed for some maintenance and crews are having a tough time getting it back open. Luckily for Larry, he happens to get his limited supply from the mine that is in working order. Basically, the earth is not running out of helium, but ways that it’s retrieved have changed.
“It’s unfortunate because you just think of, it’s a fun item to receive, children’s parties, kids love balloons. We used to blow them up, just hand them out to children that came shopping with their mom’s and now we can’t afford to do that.” Cathy said.
The U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management said that helium is also very crucial for the aerospace industry, welding and for medical uses; balloons actually make up a very small percentage of helium use. There have been previous shortages of helium, but none have lasted as long as the current one, according the BLM. This shortage is expected to last well into 2013.