40,000 Tons of New Jersey Salt, Stuck in Maine

truther February 22, 2014 0

New Jersey officials are calling it a maddening winter’s tale: how the raging forces of nature and a nearly century-old maritime law have clashed and managed to strand a 40,000-ton load of road salt in a waterfront depot in Searsport, Me.

The salt is sorely needed in New Jersey, where salt sheds are down to their final grains and a shortage has grown so acute that local officials have contemplated closing roadways and curtailing public bus routes.

40,000 Tons of New Jersey Salt, Stuck in Maine

State officials had come up with a partial solution by arranging for a vessel that would not run afoul of the federal law to retrieve a portion of the marooned salt. But a winter storm in New England forced that vessel, a barge, to seek shelter in Providence, R.I., officials with the New Jersey Department of Transportation said.

That ship should be able to resume its trip in the next day or so, but with the temperatures predicted to rise, by the time the salt reaches New Jersey the need for it will presumably have abated.

In the meantime, the bureaucratic roadblock has left New Jersey officials fuming.

A Few Hundred Miles of Ocean Between New Jersey and Its Salt


The New Jersey Transportation Department bought the salt earlier this month to replenish its stock, which has been consumed by a barrage of snowstorms.

Even one of the state’s largest depots, a site in Port Newark run by International Salt, has nearly run out. So when International’s staff said they had a spare stockpile in Maine, state officials pounced.

State officials said they arranged on Feb. 7 to buy the salt and ship it immediately to Port Newark on a vessel that had just unloaded its cargo in Maine and would have delivered the entire load to New Jersey by last weekend.

But then officials learned that the maritime law, which was passed in 1920 and is known as the Jones Act, stipulates that only ships with United States flags and crews can transport goods between American ports.

Officials applied for the waiver on Thursday, but the Department of Homeland Security has not yet ruled.

Such waivers are issued infrequently — limited ones were granted after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy to expedite fuel shipments — but New Jersey officials argued that the state was facing a dire situation. Some municipalities, officials said, were being forced to seek alternatives, including mixing sand into rock salt and using a briny mixture similar to pickle juice as supplements.

The Jones Act was pushed through Congress after World War I by Senator Wesley Jones of Washington, who warned that foreign nations would use “fair means and foul” to keep America from taking a leading role in the global shipping trade.

The law has prompted fierce debate over the years, with opponents painting it as anti-competitive and a boon for unions while supporters still see it as vital to national security.

James S. Simpson, the New Jersey transportation commissioner, saw it as bureaucratic, and took to the radio on Friday to assail the federal government.

“We’ve been going back and forth with the feds for the last two days,” Mr. Simpson said in an interview with New Jersey 101.5 FM. “This is the kind of stuff we’re dealing with. Even government, the federal government, gets in the way.”

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A man used the street to commute after a night of snow in Jersey City this month. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

United States Senators Robert Menendez and Cory A. Booker wrote to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation requesting assistance with the waiver, noting that the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, has issued “at least four state of emergency alerts.”

“We urge your agencies to continue to assist the State of New Jersey to help procure and deliver rock salt for the purposes of public safety and security,” the senators wrote in a letter.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security officials said a waiver could be granted only if federal transportation officials confirmed that no vessels with United States flags were available to move the cargo, and if waiving the requirements of the statute was in the interests of national defense.

Perhaps sensing that a waiver was unlikely to be issued, Mr. Simpson’s department devised an alternative plan, contracting a smaller vessel, a barge — this one fully American owned and operated and vetted by federal officials — to head to Maine.

With a 9,500-ton capacity, the barge must make several trips to transport all 40,000 tons, which could take weeks, New Jersey transportation officials said.

The ship, which took refuge in a port in Providence because of a storm last weekend, could reach Maine by Friday and bring the first shipment back to New Jersey by early next week, said Joseph Dee, a spokesman for the state Transportation Department.

One sign of hope is that International Salt officials say that they will soon have replenishments in their Port Newark depot, which supplies many North Jersey municipalities.

Mary Kay Warner, a company spokeswoman, said on Tuesday that the depot was currently at “very, very low” levels and dispensing salt “hand-to-mouth” to customers who have already ordered, not walk-in customers. A cargo ship from Chile is due to arrive on Thursday and another one is expected next week, she said. Most road salt delivered to the New York region is mined in South America.

As of Feb. 11, 373,000 tons of salt had been used by the state on roadways this winter season, officials said. All last winter season, the state used only 258,000 tons.

Mayor Steven M. Fulop of Jersey City said that the salt shortage there was at a critical stage and that he believed the city was scheduled to receive salt from the stockpile in Maine.

“We’re playing catch-up, so we need that barge to come in,” he said, adding that the enforcement of the Jones Act was shortsighted.

“Many cities and people are suffering because of a law that’s frankly outdated,” he said. “We need to be reasonable and apply waivers where possible.”

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