400 Tons of New Jersey Salt, Stuck in Maine

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.

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.

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.”

Read more of this The New York Times article by Corey Kilgannon and Marc Santora by clicking here.

Photo: Richard Perry/The New York Times