Oops: NJ commissioner unaware that salt arrived from Maine

Tons of rock salt sits piled up at the Sprague Energy Terminal at Mack Point in Searsport Tuesday.
Tons of rock salt sits piled up at the Sprague Energy Terminal at Mack Point in Searsport Tuesday. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 25, 2014, at 8:38 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 26, 2014, at 7:21 a.m.

NEWARK, NJ — The state’s transportation commissioner, who blamed a federal law for holding up shipment of rock salt from Maine to New Jersey, didn’t know that the first barge load of salt landed in Port Newark on Monday night.

Commissioner James Simpson said he didn’t know that the barge carrying 9,500 tons of salt had arrived Monday evening until he was told by the Asbury Park Press of its arrival, following Tuesday morning’s New Jersey Turnpike Authority board meeting.

“I am just hearing that the barge is in Newark,” Simpson said after Tuesday morning’s New Jersey Turnpike Authority meeting. “I have not confirmed that, but it’s good news if it did come,”

On Monday afternoon, Simpson told reporters that state officials weren’t expecting the salt barge to land in Port Newark for several weeks — even though it was en route to arrive that night.

Spokesman Joseph Dee said that Simpson “didn’t have up to the minute information” on Monday.

“He was trying to convey that it would take several weeks to get all the salt here; there was a miscommunication,” Dee said.

He wasn’t sure why Simpson hadn’t been informed Tuesday that the salt barge had arrived at 6 p.m., Monday evening.

“He’s extremely busy and is being pulled in a million directions,” Dee said. “All I can say is we’ve been saying all along that the barge was supposed to leave over the weekend and arrive early this week.”

Dee did confirm what American Maritime Partnership officials said earlier Tuesday, that a barge arrived carrying 9,500 tons out of 40,000 tons purchased by the NJDOT. The barge left Searsport, Maine, at 6 a.m. Saturday.

The salt will start to be unloaded Wednesday, Dee said.

“There are logistics issues at the port, it takes time to get it into a berth and unloaded and loaded in to trucks [for delivery],” he said.

The remaining 30,500 tons of salt is still waiting for transport on a Searsport dock.

Meanwhile, Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, D-NJ, blasted the DOT for trying to blame the Jones Act, a federal regulation designed to protect the U.S. maritime industry, for what they said was the state’s poor planning in the salt move.

“There were numerous opportunities to enlist our help, including at least one direct conversation with Commissioner Simpson, in which the apparent salt crisis wasn’t even mentioned. In the face of an emergency, citizens of New Jersey expect its officials to do everything possible to protect the public from potential harm and in this case, the state fell short,” the senators said in a statement released Tuesday evening.

The barge was hired by the DOT after it failed to win a waiver of federal maritime regulation which would have allowed hiring a foreign flagged vessel to take all of the salt to New Jersey.

Simpson said the NJDOT was prepared to pay $500,000 to the Anastasia S, a foreign-flagged vessel which he contends was docked next to the salt in Searsport, and transport all 40,000 tons to Newark. The state, however, needed a waiver of the Jones Act, a federal regulation which protects jobs by requiring that only American-flagged vessels transport cargo between U.S. ports.

An empty barge was hired by the NJDOT for $1.2 million to travel from Baltimore to start moving salt, in case a waiver wasn’t granted, he said — an increase of $700,000.

A waiver is only granted by the federal Department of Homeland Security or Department of Defense if doing so is a matter of national security. Federal officials said New Jersey’s request did not meet the criteria. Homeland Security obtains formal determination from the federal transportation department’s Maritime Administration about the availability of U.S.-flagged vessels, and then Homeland Security makes the decision on a waiver.

Federal transportation officials said in a statement that “New Jersey submitted a waiver request to the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Feb. 13. Unfortunately, by the time New Jersey reached out, US DOT ability to help was limited, though we identified U.S. vessels that were available to help.”

Among the initial U.S. vessels located by the Maritime Administration were two barges (9,500 metric tons and 10,000 metric tons capacity) that were expected to be able to complete two round trips each to transport the salt from Searsport to Newark, said Michael M. Novak, U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration spokesman.

One of those was the barge which ultimately has begun transporting the salt.

Federal and maritime officials said a waiver is a complicated issue, since customs and port security issues are involved.

State DOT officials, however, maintain they contacted the federal Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security by phone on Feb. 10 and were told by email on Feb. 13 taht the request for a waiver was denied.

While Simpson has blamed the Jones Act for the trouble moving the salt, he stopped short of saying it should be repealed. He said he recognizes that it protects jobs and American maritime interests. But Simpson said public interests should trump private interests.

“We need to do something. It would be a great topic for a hearing in Washington,” he said. “All it should take is 20 minutes to state the facts, the public benefits, the costs and decide.”

Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., agreed with Simpson that the state’s contention it was facing a public safety crisis, should have be a consideration.

“No state should have to spend nearly three-quarters of a million dollars unnecessarily because of rigid bureaucratic roadblocks,” said Lance. “Congress should examine modifications to the Jones Act that allow for expedited administrative relief, especially during emergency situations.”

But Menendez and Booker cautioned against repealing the Jones Act, saying “the lesson learned here should not be to repeal or blame the Jones Act, but to work in partnership to achieve a common goal. The state’s poor planning should not become New Jersey residents’ emergency.”

Members of the state’s congressional delegation said state officials did not ask them for help and that they learned about the issue after Simpson spoke on radio station NJ 101.5 and took action.

“The state hasn’t been in contact with us; they did not reach out to us. We have since contacted them,” said Steven Sandberg, Menendez’s spokesman, who said both New Jersey senators worked with federal maritime officials to find U.S. flagged vessels after learning of the issue on Feb. 14.

Meanwhile, the state’s hunt to find and move salt supplies continues. Simpson said it will take multiple shiploads of the product to solved the states problems.

“We’re still critically low on salt. We have enough for two and a half to three days,” Simpson said. “Our trucks have been out every night.”

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