40,000 tons of New Jersey’s rock salt stuck in Searsport

Piles of rock salt sit Tuesday at the Mack Point industrial port in Searsport, awaiting the arrival of a barge to bring the salt down to New Jersey. The expected snowstorm is likely to delay the arrival of the barge, according to an official from Sprague Energy, which owns the port.
Piles of rock salt sit Tuesday at the Mack Point industrial port in Searsport, awaiting the arrival of a barge to bring the salt down to New Jersey. The expected snowstorm is likely to delay the arrival of the barge, according to an official from Sprague Energy, which owns the port.
Posted Feb. 18, 2014, at 3:12 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 18, 2014, at 8:42 p.m.
Snow removal equipment pushes snow along the sidewalk on Franklin Street in downtown Bangor last weekend.
Kevin Bennett
Snow removal equipment pushes snow along the sidewalk on Franklin Street in downtown Bangor last weekend. Buy Photo

NEW YORK — Rock salt was in short supply in the Northeast on Tuesday after successive winter storms led to critical shortages in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, while New Jersey scrambled to secure a huge shipment stuck at a port in Maine.

The shortages come as the East Coast was slammed by a third winter storm system in a single week, leaving many states over budget for snow removal and running low on critical supplies, such as rock salt, which is used to help melt ice- and snow-packed roads and public areas.

The 40,000 tons of rock salt remained in Searsport, Maine, days after New Jersey was denied a waiver of federal shipping rules that would have allowed an available foreign-flagged vessel to bring it into a Newark port.

Instead, efforts to get the ice-melting material to New Jersey remained stymied by the 1920 Maritime Act, also known as the Jones Act, enacted to protect the American shipping industry from foreign competition.

“It’s very frustrating. We could have had that shipment here by this past weekend,” said New Jersey Department of Transportation spokesman Joe Dee. Salt supplies were running so low in the state that crews were “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” he said.

With another month before the first day of spring on March 20, Dee said there was barely enough salt to cover one more storm.

“And if it’s a major storm, not even one storm,” Dee said. “If we don’t have the salt to treat the roads, we are going to have major problems.”

New Jersey officials said they have sent an American-flagged vessel to retrieve part of the shipment, but it won’t arrive back in the state until next week.

The Department of Homeland Security, which would issue the waiver to allow for the shipment, said no decision had yet been made on waiving requirements of the Jones Act.

Jim Therriault of Sprague Energy, the company that owns the Mack Point Marine Intermodal Cargo Terminal in Searsport, said that a barge might be able to come to the port within a couple of days to pick up a load of salt for New Jersey.

“Right now, all there is, is a pile of salt in Searsport on the ground,” he said Tuesday afternoon.

That salt pile, owned by Pennsylvania-based International Salt Co., is transported from Chile to the Searsport cargo terminal, where it is stockpiled for the season, according to company spokesperson Mary Kay Warner.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation is responsible for moving the salt they’ve contracted to buy from “point A to point B,” she said.

Therriault said he had heard the reports that the mid-Atlantic state had tried to get a waiver to the Jones Act that would have allowed a South American-flagged vessel to take on a load of rock salt after crews finished unloading its cargo of petroleum coke. But that ship was empty when it sailed away from Searsport on Friday evening.

This week’s predicted winter storm is likely to slow the progress of the barge coming from New Jersey, according to Therriault.

“Ships can go through a lot of weather but not barges,” he said.

New York City, meantime, has used the most salt in recent memory this winter, spreading more than 460,000 tons so far this season, compared with 404,247 in 2000-01, according to city Department of Sanitation spokeswoman Belinda Mager.

Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York City and Long Island were facing “dire” salt shortages.

Connecticut on Tuesday was awaiting new shipments of salt after Gov. Dannel Malloy last week declared a state of emergency because of dwindling supplies. The state said it was asking for assistance from both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the White House.

The latest storm system blanketed Midwestern states, including Michigan and Illinois, with up to 9 inches of snow before leaving another layer of precipitation across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Parts of New England, including Boston, could pick up another 6 inches or more through Tuesday night, according to forecasting site AccuWeather.com.

More than 600 U.S. flights have been canceled and another 2,500 delayed, according to the airline tracking website FlightAware.

Western Pennsylvania officials said after the latest band of weather on Tuesday, salt inventory was at a critical low. In Pittsburgh, the city’s Department of Public Works said it was mixing its salt supply with other chemicals to make it last longer.

Transportation officials in Massachusetts said they had enough rock salt on hand to handle the latest storm but were taking precautions to ensure the spreading was done with minimal waste.

Michael Verseckes, a spokesman with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said Tuesday the state had exceeded its $42 million snow removal budget this year, spending around $70 million for labor, overtime, materials and shipments of salt and other supplies.

BDN writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.

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