Road salt finally arrives in NJ despite legislative snafu; why it’s still not enough

Posted at 8:00 PM, Feb 19, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-19 20:00:22-05

NEW JERSEY (PIX11) – For the first time in weeks, New Jersey is receiving major shipments of road salt.  It couldn’t be coming at a better time, since many Garden State cities and towns are completely out of the substance that helps stop road surfaces from freezing over, and because a large shipment the state government had planned on receiving is stuck in a delivery limbo created by a nearly century-old law.

At the Marsh Street salt docks at Port Newark on Wednesday, a line of trucks a quarter mile long waited outside of the Atlantic Salt pier.  Docked there was the freighter Aphrodite L, with a 25,000 ton shipment of road salt from Chile, said truckers waiting in line to load up for the first time in weeks, in some of their cases.

“Supply is low,” said trucker Roy DeMarco.  “Everywhere we go, the domes, they’re empty.”  He was referring to salt storage facilities in New Jersey cities and towns, as well as state Department of Transportation salt barns.

“Last week, we were slow,” said Kim Van Wagner, the dispatcher at the dock where the Aphrodite L was unloading her cargo of sought-after white granules.  “We had nothing,” Van Wagner said.

An attempt by the New Jersey DOT to replenish the road salt stockpile hit a major legislative roadblock over the last week.  The DOT found a 40,000 ton salt pile on a dock in Searsport, Maine.  However, the federal Jones Act, which prohibits foreign vessels from transporting cargoes between U.S. ports, got in the way.

A ship with a Marshall Islands flag was available to transport the salt, so the NJDOT asked the Obama Administration for a Jones Act waiver.  U.S. senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez also sent letters of support to the administration.

But, according to NJDOT, that request for a waiver was rejected officially in writing by the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday.

There has never been any report of the Jones Act having been waived for a road salt shipment, and the Act, which was voted into U.S. law in 1920, makes clear that it can only be waived in cases of national defense or if no U.S. flagged vessel is available for transport.  Neither is the case for the salt sitting on the dock in Maine.

So for now, NJDOT has been left scrambling.  It has obtained a U.S. flagged barge that it’s sending to Maine.

“[It’s] scheduled to arrive in Maine this week,” NJDOT spokesperson Joseph Dee told PIX11 News in a telephone interview, “then arrive with 9,500 tons [of salt] early next week in Newark.”

That shipment would only be about a quarter of the amount of road salt in Maine waiting to be shipped.  NJDOT said it would send the barge back and forth until the full amount were moved.  The agency said the need is enormous.

“This year has really been just insane in terms of the amount of salt we needed,” Dee told PIX11 News.

In fact, in the 2012-2013 winter season, the state used 258,000 tons of salt, when, according to the DOT, there was a high number of frozen road surface incidents.  In the 2013-2014 season so far, the department has used 442,000 tons, and there are still four more weeks of winter.

But Wednesday saw seasonal temperatures return to New Jersey, after weeks of the mercury staying below — and often well below — average.  The rest of the week is expected to have above average temperatures, which the NJDOT acknowledges is a stroke of good luck relative to its situation.

“It takes days like this, that any salt that does arrive,” said Dee, “for that salt to get unloaded and be delivered to all of the salt suppliers’ customers.”

Indeed, at the Mash Street salt yards in Port Newark, salt truck drivers said they’re working 16 hour shifts now that some salt has finally arrived off a ship.  They also said that they’re expecting at least two more fully loaded ships with cargoes of 25,000 tons each, to arrive in the next four days.

Even that will probably not be enough to match the need.  Long range forecasting firm Weather2000 is predicting more low temperatures and frozen precipitation for much of the rest of the season.