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Heavy equipment operators load salt onto trucks at the Atlantic County Department of Public Works in Northfield.

Michael Ein

The maritime industry is suggesting New Jersey's transportation commissioner concocted an elaborate snow job when he blamed a nearly century-old shipping law for bottling up a 40,000-ton supply of roadway salt.

The salt, which had been stuck in a Maine port and is needed for New Jersey's roads this snowy winter, is now being shipped to Newark by a barge. But the barge will need three more trips to complete the delivery, the state Department of Transportation said.

"The barge was our Plan B," department spokesman Steve Schapiro explained.

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Last week, state Transportation Commissioner James Simpson complained the salt was stranded on the docks of Searsport, Maine, because the federal government had refused to grant New Jersey's request for a waiver from the 1920 Merchant Marine Act. Also known as the Jones Act, the law bars foreign ships from making domestic deliveries to U.S. ports.

Simpson said he wanted the waiver so that a foreign-flagged ship, already in Searsport, could pick up New Jersey's salt supplies and deliver them to the port of Newark. When the federal government denied the waiver request, finding it unwarranted, Simpson asserted that bureaucratic red tape was jeopardizing the lives of New Jersey motorists.

"I'm just ticked," Simpson told reporters while discussing the salt crisis after a New Jersey Turnpike Authority board meeting Feb. 25. "This is a serious public safety issue."

U.S. officials instead allowed an American-based barge to make a smaller delivery of the salt supplies. One delivery of about 10,000 tons arrived in Newark last week. Schapiro said the barge is en route to Maine again, but will need three more trips to deliver the remaining 30,000 tons. He did not know how long it would take to complete the entire shipment but said the barge would be much slower than having a large ship transport the entire load in one trip.

"We would have gotten that salt in days. Here we are a month later, and we still don't have all of that salt," Schapiro said.

In the meantime, maritime officials believe Simpson and the NJDOT are unfairly pointing the finger at their industry. The American Maritime Partnership, or AMP, an industry trade group, has accused Simpson and his department of poor planning, saying they are the ones to blame for New Jersey's salt shortage and delivery delays.

"The DOT simply waited too long to order more salt, then found itself in a public relations bind and needing a scapegoat. With just a little planning, this situation could have been prevented," Tom Allegretti, the AMP's chairman, said in an opinion piece published in The Star-Ledger.

The AMP also released a statement titled "Frequently asked questions about the New Jersey salt shortage." In it, the AMP disputed Simpson's account of the controversy, including his statements that the foreign-flagged ship, the Anastasia S, was available to load up the salt in Searsport and deliver it to New Jersey.

"In fact, the Anastasia S was in Maine delivering another cargo for a different customer but left the area to take a previously scheduled job shortly after the NJDOT filed its waiver request. Therefore even if the waiver had been approved in record time, the ship that the NJDOT planned to use was long gone," the AMP said.

Allegretti took it a step further, saying New Jersey officials "opted to publicly promote a story" that a foreign vessel was available in Maine and willing to haul the salt to New Jersey, even though they had gotten indications that the federal government would not approve the waiver request.

He went on to say that the maritime industry actually came to New Jersey's aid by sending the American-flagged barge to pick up the salt in Maine.

On behalf of Simpson, Schapiro declined to respond to Allegretti's and the AMP's accusations. He also declined to comment on similar allegations, made by New Jersey's U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, that the DOT was responsible for the state's salt shortage.

"What has become clear is that the state Department of Transportation has fallen short in planning for and addressing its dwindling salt supply," Menendez and Booker said in a statement.

The unusually snowy winter has forced New Jersey to dip deeply into salt supplies, leaving the state, some counties and some local communities dangerously low to respond to future storms, Simpson said last week.

However, New Jersey has since received new deliveries of rock salt from its primary supplier from other ports along the East Coast, Schapiro said. Combined with the 10,000-ton shipment from Maine last week, those supplies have given the state enough salt to battle two or three more snowstorms, he noted.

Through Feb. 27, the DOT has used more than 460,000 tons of rock salt during this year's stormy weather, compared with 258,000 tons for the entire winter last year, Schapiro said.

New Jersey, realizing earlier in the winter that its stockpiles were running low, tried to secure more salt from other states and suppliers, but was turned down because they had no surplus to share, Schapiro said.

"This has been an incredibly difficult winter in terms of the severity of storms and frequency of storms," he said. "There were shortages of salt from the Midwest to New England. It was an issue that affected everyone."

Faced with those shortages, New Jersey then learned of the salt stockpile in Maine. Simpson said New Jersey had a deal to pay about $500,000 for the 40,000 tons but will now have to shell out about $1.2 million because of the multiple barge trips that are needed to transport the entire load from Maine to Newark.

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