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Rock Salt Bound for New Jersey Is Held Up by Decades-Old Maritime Law

Marc Santora and Corey Kilgannon
Tuesday, 18 Feb 2014 | 1:35 PM ET
NJ road salt stuck in Maine
Tuesday, 18 Feb 2014 | 12:00 PM ET
A load of salt bound for New Jersey is stuck in Maine until a ship can get there to pick it up. A 1920 maritime law blocked the foreign vessel that would have transported the salt from carrying cargo between U.S. ports.

With the region hit by yet another blast of winter weather, a mountain of 40,000 tons of rock salt destined for New Jersey is being held up at a port in Maine by a century-old maritime law, forcing state officials to scramble to retrieve a portion of the load even as salt sheds across the state are down to their final grains.

The salt shortage in some parts of the state has grown so acute that local officials have said they might need to close roadways and curtail public transportation.

Jim Simpson, New Jersey's transportation commissioner, said in a radio interview on Friday that there was a ship in Maine that could carry the entire load to the Port of Newark within days but cannot do so because it does not sail under an American flag.

J. Morrill | Stockbyte | Getty Images

"We've been going back and forth with the feds for the last two days," Mr. Simpson told the station, 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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On Tuesday, Joseph Dee, a spokesman for the transportation department, said that the state's request for a waiver had been denied on Thursday and that they were not sure that the larger ship was even in port anymore.

As an alternative, they dispatched a barge to retrieve 9,500 tons of salt. It will take several trips to transport all 40,000 tons, which could take weeks.

Its first trip has already been delayed by a winter storm pummeling New England, forcing the barge to take refuge in port in Providence, R.I., Mr. Dee said. Officials were hopeful that it would be able to reach Maine by the coming weekend and return early next week.

The delivery of salt has been complicated by the Jones Act—formerly known the Merchant Marine Act—which was passed in 1920 as a way of ensuring that the country is able to maintain a viable merchant marine fleet.

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CNBC's Morgan Brennan reports on road salt shortages and water main breaks in the Northeast.

It requires that any shipment going directly from one port in the United States to another be carried on vessels built in the United States and operated by an American crew.

While there have been waivers granted in the past, they are rare, according to a government official familiar with maritime regulations who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not involved in the matter involving the salt shipment.

There is a provision that allows the law to be waived, but that was designed to deal with matters of national security, according to the official.

As with other maritime laws, this one involves a tangle of federal agencies.

Technically, the law says the federal Department of Transportation can grant a waiver, the official said. But there are other agencies that play a role in the decision, a process that has grown more complicated since Sept. 11, 2001. For instance, the Coast Guard, which was part of the Transportation Department, is now part of Homeland Security. Another central authority controlling activity at American ports is the United States Maritime Administration.

"In practice, what is happening today is that it is a joint decision with the D.O.T. and Homeland Security and, when appropriate, the Department of Defense and Energy can be brought in," the official said.

Limited waivers were granted after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy to expedite the movement of fuel and oil to areas affected by the storms.

But, the official said, even after Hurricane Sandy, there were so many hurdles to obtaining a waiver for cargo that state officials never even applied.

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For New Jersey communities, the intricacies of maritime law are of little interest.

They just know their salt sheds are barren and the situation is unlikely to improve soon.

Even before the most recent storms, 373,000 tons of salt had been used on state roads as of Feb. 11, according to state officials. Over the course of all of last year, they used only 258,000 tons.

Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City, speaking to reporters over the weekend, said side streets were frozen over because of the shortage.

"We were told that we're getting today a total of 500 tons of salt, which will get us through hopefully one storm," he said. "We use about 800 tons per storm, so it's not adequate."

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