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Senators Step in and NJ Salt Plot Thickens

New Jersey’s two U.S. Senators are urging federal officials to expedite the state’s efforts to get 40,000 tons of road salt transported to Port Newark, despite the setback posed by maritime law and the lack of an available American vessel large enough to carry the entire load.

Freighter Aphrodite at Port Newark
A freighter at Port Newark, where New Jersey hopes to receive several shipments of road salt soon. (Townsquare Media NJ)

But it was clear Tuesday that there are multiple shipments of road salt destined for New Jersey and at least two versions of the backstage negotiations to get it here.

The Maritime Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, mandates that cargo can only be moved from one U.S. port to another by vessels of American registry. Jim Simpson, commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Transportation told Townsquare Media last Friday that the DOT lost an opportunity to have a Marshall Islands-registered vessel called the Anastasia S take all 40,000 tons of salt from Searsport Maine to Port Newark because federal officials were refusing to waive the Jones Act in this case.

However, a letter and news release from U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Corey Booker and a statement from the U.S. Department of Transportation Tuesday contend the waiver remains under consideration and imply NJDOT did not move quickly enough to make its request.

Meanwhile, International Salt, a regular supplier to the NJDOT, said Tuesday that it will have two ships making a large scale delivery to the Port of Newark, one due on Thursday and the other by the middle of next week, neither from Maine. A spokesperson for the company would not disclose the tonnage but said it would take several days to offload.

By that time, according to other reports, most of the 40,000 tons of salt in Searsport, Maine may also have arrived in Port Newark by barge.

Simpson last Friday referred to discussions with federal officials which he said had gone on for several days without producing a waiver of the Jones Act. A spokesman for the NJDOT repeated this assertion Tuesday, with more detail, saying that waiver discussions with federal officials had begun Feb. 9 and resulted in emails to the NJDOT Feb. 12 and 13, asserting that a waiver would not be granted.

However, Tuesday’s letter from Menendez and Booker said the NJDOT had not filed an official waiver request until last Thursday, Feb. 13. The two senators added that they had only learned of the issue from media reports that day.

Writing to Jeh Johnson, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, and Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, the senators said: “We understand that on February 13, 2014, the New Jersey Department of Transportation filed a request with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to waive the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 in order to allow a foreign-flagged vessel to transport more than 40,000 tons of rock salt to Port Newark.”

In an accompanying press release, the two Democratic senators said they “each first learned of the NJDOT’s emergent need from media reports on Friday, February 14th.” Multiple media reports had followed Simpson’s discussion of the issue with Townsquare Media’s Eric Scott on New Jersey 101.5 that morning, followed by a story on nj1015.com.

On Friday, the day after the NJDOT said it received the second of two emails from federal officials declining its waiver request, Menendez and Booker said, “DHS confirmed to Senate staff that it is considering the State’s request for a waiver of the Jones Act.”

“We urge your agencies to continue to assist the State of New Jersey to help procure and deliver rock salt for the purposes of public safety and security,” Menendez and Booker wrote Johnson and Foxx. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-West Long Branch) said Tuesday that he has issued a similar appeal.

The timing referred to by Menendez and Booker was one of several suggestions by parties on the edge of the salt dilemma that a waiver might have been possible in time for the Marshall Islands transport ship to leave Searsport Maine with all 40,000 tons of road salt last Friday if the NJDOT had moved more quickly to secure help with the matter.

The American Maritime Partnership, a trade group representing both U.S. maritime companies and unions, issued statements Friday and again Monday, voicing no objection to a waiver and both times alluding to the eleventh hour nature of NJDOT’s request.

On Friday, AMP chairman Thomas A. Allegretti said his organization was aiding “a last minute request for road salt to help the people of New Jersey.” On Monday, Allegretti said the AMP was continuing to help line up transport for the salt “despite short notice by transportation officials.”

And Tuesday, a report by The Record, posted on northjersey.com, quoted a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation as saying, “Unfortunately, by the time New Jersey reached out, US DOT ability to help was limited, though we have identified US vessels that are available to help.”

David Matthau also contributed to this report.

Here is the full text of the Menendez-Booker letter to the U.S. secretaries of Homeland Security and Transportation:

“Dear Secretary Johnson and Secretary Foxx:

“Thank you for your assistance in working with the State of New Jersey to identify maritime transportation for the delivery of a 10,000 ton supplemental supply of rock salt, with a commitment of additional assistance. We urge the Administration to explore every possible avenue to assist the State.

“As you are aware, the State of New Jersey has been among the hardest hit states this winter season, with more than 70 inches of snow accumulated in some parts of the state. The Governor has issued at least four state of emergency alerts. Several cities and municipalities are reporting shortages of rock salt, which has the potential to endanger motorists and the general public in future snow events. Reports indicate the state will see additional snow accumulation this week. The shortage of rock salt is truly a critical national need.

“We understand that on February 13, 2014, the New Jersey Department of Transportation filed a request with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to waive the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 in order to allow a foreign-flagged vessel to transport more than 40,000 tons of rock salt to Port Newark. Recognizing that such waivers require an interagency review of the national security merits of the waiver request, we appreciate the Administration’s swift review.

We urge your agencies to continue to assist the State of New Jersey in the procurement and delivery of rock salt for the purposes of public safety and security. Thank you for your consideration.

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