Fierce competition among towns for salt

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent

With forecasters predicting a snow and ice blizzard in the making last week, municipal administrators and DPW chiefs were all burning up the phone lines, hoping against hope that an essential commodity would be arriving soon.

That commodity, of course, was rock salt.

Problem was that shipments were tied up on barges at the terminals at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth and lots of counties and communities were competing to grab as much as they could get, local officials said.

In a report issued by New Jersey 101.5, State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson was quoted as saying that it takes three weeks for suppliers in Chile – a primary provider of rock salt – to get the material to the U.S. by boat. He said the state has located other sources in the Northeast U.S. but transportation logistical issues were complicating deliveries. He said the industry didn’t anticipate how much salt would be needed this winter.

Belleville was among the many area communities frantically in search of salt last week. Last Tuesday, a very concerned Township Manager Kevin Esposito told The Observer that Belleville had placed orders, on Jan. 31, and on Feb. 4, for two 300-ton shipments purchased through the Essex County cooperative program from International Salt, headquartered in Clarks Summit, Pa., but hadn’t yet received them.

“We had people calling on a daily basis,” Esposito said, “and today I called and pleaded with them to please make every effort to give us something. We are also working with the state and county OEM (Office of Emergency Management) to get salt through those agencies.”

As of last Tuesday, Esposito said the township had 160 tons of salt on hand – definitely in need of replenishing.

And, with the uncertainty about whether any salt deliveries would be arriving soon, last Monday Esposito said he ordered 100 tons of sand to mix with the available salt. He said the township considered using gravel but ruled that out because “gravel tends to go into the storm sewers and create havoc.”

“So we’re trying to stretch the ‘soup’ but, of course, sand doesn’t have the ice-melting capacity of salt,” he said.

Ultimately, the township received only one salt delivery – for only 100 tons – and was advised to expect only 50 tons more from a second shipment, according to DPW Superintendent Billy Gilbert. It used the additional supply to attack the onslaught of more than 14 inches of white stuff that fell.

All snow emergency routes along Franklin, Belmont, Union and Washington Aves. were cleared of snow but, on the side streets, DPW crews manning plows struggled to move snow around residents’ parked cars, Esposito said.

In 2012, the township spent $33,128 for salt; last year, the figure jumped to $91,153 and this year, to date, the amount spent has reached $62,780, based on a contract price of $52.29 per ton, Esposito said.

“Next year,” he said, “we hope to establish a relationship with secondary vendors as a fallback position.”

In Kearny, Mayor Alberto Santos said the town managed to get a delivery of 100 tons of salt from its vendor Cargill, based in Minneapolis, Minn. “We had been down to about 250 tons,” he said.

Because the supply of salt is limited, most communities aren’t getting the full amount of salt they’re ordering and any additional shipments will likely be cut off at 50 tons, he said.

Santos said that Kearny DPW crews had been working 12-hour shifts, “non-stop,” since last Wednesday night, plowing the 15 inches of snow that fell Wednesday night into Thursday and the additional five inches that landed early last Friday.

“We’ve been rationing our salt, using it only on hill streets and intersections and we’ve been pre-treating the streets with brine, a liquid salt solution, which is good for melting maybe the top two inches but doesn’t deal with, say, the bottom five inches,” the mayor said.

“If the situation develops where we have a deep freeze,” Santos said, “and we don’t get sufficient salt, the next step will be road closures – such as the intersection of Belgrove Drive and Woodland Ave. – for safety reasons. That’s why we’ve been rationing the salt we have.”

Riding around town last Friday morning, Santos said that Kearny Ave. and several main streets were “down to asphalt” but observed “a lot of slipping and sliding on side streets where we’ve done no salting. I would urge motorists to be careful and use common courtesy where some streets are not wide enough to allow two cars to pass.”

Kearny isn’t taking steps to have piles of snow removed because of the enormous cost associated with that operation, Santos said. “The last time we did contract for snow removal, into the Passaic River, was in 2003 and the cost for one day of taking snow off Kearny Ave. was $300,000 so we can’t do that anymore.”

In Lyndhurst, DPW Superintendent Richard Gress said last week the township was mixing salt with grit – very fine gravel – on a “50/50” ratio to compensate for the fact that there was only “175 to 200” tons of salt remaining in its stockpiles.

“We have 550 tons [of salt] on order,” Gress said. “We ordered 300 tons on Feb. 3 and another 300 on Feb. 4 from our vendor, Cargill, and they gave us 50 tons [last week].” Lyndhurst pays $49.96 per ton for salt, he said.

Cost-wise, this winter has been no picnic for the township treasury, Gress said. “Guaranteed we’re already over the amount we budgeted.”

Given how hard it is to get the stuff, Gress said the DPW is “barricading our salt with our trucks to prevent theft. We’re treating it like gold. Unless you have a state contract, the ports won’t deal with you.”

In East Newark, Mayor Joseph Smith said: “We were fortunate to get a 20-ton load of salt before the last storm. For a ‘normal’ storm, we can get through with three tons.” The borough is using its four small plows to clear what snow it can from local streets, he said.

And in North Arlington, Mayor Peter Massa said the borough got “a small delivery” of salt last week. “The biggest problem we have is on the side streets where a lot of cars are parked or where some people are parking in the street instead of in their driveways so the plows can’t go curb-to-curb.”

The Observer Staff