U.S. Northeast rock salt supply at critical low as more snow falls

NEW YORK Tue Feb 18, 2014 8:22pm EST

A man throws salt on a street during the arrival of a snowstorm in Exchange Place, New Jersey, December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

A man throws salt on a street during the arrival of a snowstorm in Exchange Place, New Jersey, December 10, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Successive winter storms led to critical shortages of rock salt in the U.S. Northeast on Tuesday including Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, while New Jersey scrambled to secure a huge shipment stuck at a port in Maine.

The scarcity hit 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 supplies like rock salt, which is used to help melt ice and snow on roads and public areas.

A 40,000-ton shipment of rock salt was stuck on a foreign ship in Searsport, Maine, days after New Jersey was denied a waiver of federal shipping rules that would have allowed it to travel to a Newark port.

Instead, efforts to get the salt to New Jersey remained stymied by the 1920 Maritime Act, also known as the Jones Act, enacted to protect the U.S. shipping industry from foreign competition. By law, a foreign ship docked at a U.S. port cannot dock at another U.S. port without a federal waiver.

"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 will not 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.

STRETCHING SALT SUPPLIES

New York City, meantime, has used the most salt in recent years this winter, spreading more than 460,000 tons so far this season, compared to 404,247 in 2000-2001, according to city Department of Sanitation spokeswoman Belinda Mager. Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said New York City and Long Island were facing "dire" salt shortages.

Connecticut on Tuesday was still awaiting shipments of salt after Governor Dannel Malloy last week declared a state of emergency because of dwindling supplies. The state said it was asking for assistance from 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 on Monday before leaving more snow across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York early on Tuesday. 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 very low. In Pittsburgh, the city's Department of Public Works was mixing its current salt supply with other chemicals to make it last longer.

Transportation officials in Massachusetts said they currently 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 also exceeded its $42 million snow removal budget this year, spending upwards of $70 million for labor, overtime, materials and ongoing shipments of salt and other supplies.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Osterman)

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