Planet Money
3:28 am
Fri February 28, 2014

An Old Law, A Snowy Winter, And A Modern-Day Salt Shortage

Originally published on Fri February 28, 2014 11:38 am

There were so many winter storms in New Jersey this year that the state nearly ran out of the salt used to melt snow and ice on the roads.

State officials thought they had found a solution when they discovered an extra 40,000 tons of rock salt for sale up in Searsport, Maine.

The state bought the salt but ran into problems getting it to New Jersey — despite the fact that there was an enormous, empty cargo ship, sitting at the Searsport port, headed down to Newark.

"I mean, it was just like serendipity," says Joe Dee, chief of staff with the New Jersey Department of Transportation. "Here's this ship that's big enough to take 40,000 tons of salt, on its way to Newark anyway. This is perfect."

But standing between that pile of salt and the port of Newark was an ancient law. Stemming back to the 1600s, reaffirmed in its modern form in 1920, it's called the Jones Act. Under the Jones Act, if you want to bring something from one U.S. port to another, you have to use an American-built ship, flying an American flag, with a mostly American crew.

And that ship up in Maine was from the Marshall Islands. So it was a no go. "It seems a little ridiculous," Dee says, "when there's such a simple, elegant solution staring you in the face."

The only ship that the New Jersey Department of Transportation could find, to bring down the rock salt from Maine, is a barge that carries 9,500 tons at a time. So it will take a couple of weeks for all of the salt to make it to Newark.

The Jones Act is a big deal in other instances as well. Hawaiian businesses, which are on islands and need to get almost everything by ship, end up paying higher costs for many goods because of the Jones Act.

Defenders of the Jones Act say it's good for jobs and it's a national security issue.

"There are certain things in this country that are core to protecting the country," says Darrell Conner, a lobbyist who represents the domestic shipping industry. "Shipbuilding industrial base just happens to be one of them." This requirement keeps U.S. shipyards in business, building up an American fleet that could be conscripted into military service, he says.

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