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.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For some of us in this country, it's been a snowy winter. There were so many winter storms in New Jersey, people began to fear they'd run out of rock salt, the stuff used to melt the snow and ice. The state found a solution: 40,000 tons of rock salt in Searsport, Maine. New Jersey bought the salt but then ran into problems with actually getting it delivered.
Zoe Chace from our Planet Money team picks up the story in Port Newark.
ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: I'm standing here at Berth 13 looking at this barge that's filled with rock salt, salt to melt the snow, that just came down here from Searsport, Maine to New Jersey.
JAY FIELD, BYLINE: And I'm Jay Field in Searsport, Maine, where the rock salt just came from.
CHACE: Jay and I were on the phone. We were each recording ourselves as we were talking.
FIELD: And, Zoe, what's funny is that there is still a huge pile of salt in front of me. It's a mountain, literally, with a big black tarp over it. And it's towering above a warehouse behind it.
CHACE: And, OK, so this is the plan. They're going to drop off the rock salt here and then this barge is going to turn around and head back up to you.
FIELD: And it's going to pick up another fraction of this large pile and head back down to you.
CHACE: And then it's going to drop off the rock salt here in New Jersey and turn around and head back to you.
FIELD: And pick up another fraction of salt.
CHACE: You get the idea.
JOE DEE: We are getting this salt delivered to Newark in 9,500 ton increments because that's all the barge can hold.
CHACE: Joe Dee is with the New Jersey Department of Transportation. He knows this is a crazy way to deliver 40,000 tons of salt - especially since at the time they first needed the salt, there was a gigantic ship just sitting there that Joe Dee thought, could have taken all the salt at once.
DEE: I mean it was just like serendipity, here's this ship that's big enough to take 40,000 tons of salt, it's on its way to Newark anyway. This is perfect.
CHACE: Except it wasn't, because there was something standing in between that pile of salt and Port Newark, New Jersey, a piece of legislation from 1920 called the Jones Act.
The Jones Act says, if you want to bring something from one port in America to another port in America, you have to use an American-built ship, flying an American flag with a mostly American crew. That ship up in Maine was from the Marshall Islands.
To Joe Dee in New Jersey, it was a little baffling,.
DEE: It seems a little ridiculous when there's such a simple elegant solution staring you in the face.
PONO VON HOLT: The Jones Act's been around a long time. I wouldn't call it an old friend but it's been an old challenge.
CHACE: Pono Von Holt is one of the many frustrated people you encounter when you look into the Jones Act. He's a cattle rancher in Hawaii. Hawaii, it's an island that's also the United States, so every time something comes or goes to Hawaii from the mainland it has to travel American - which Pono says, for his business - adds about 15, 20 percent to the cost of shipping.
For people like Pono, and there's plenty of them, the Jones Act amounts to a tax that they're paying to ship their stuff from place to place.
DARREL CONNER: There are certain things in this country that are core to protecting the country, shipbuilding industrial base just happens to be one of those.
CHACE: Darrel Conner is a lobbyist with the domestic shipping industry. He says, it's not just about protecting U.S. shipping jobs, it's a national security issue. This requirement keeps U.S. shipyards in business, building up an American fleet that could be conscripted into military service.
CONNER: There are more things at interest here than just strictly the commerce of this country.
CHACE: So we have to force a private U.S. company use a U.S. ship just to make sure the Defense Department has enough ships to choose from later on.
CONNER: The Defense Department relies on that industrial base to ensure that we can meet our military needs.
CHACE: That argument doesn't sway people like Pono bearing the costs. He tried shipping his cows to Canada first, then to the United States, saved some money. But then mad cow disease scuttled that plan. I did run Pono's Canada solution by Joe Dee in New Jersey.
DEE: Oh, you mean to load up the ship...
CHACE: Load up the ship with salt...
DEE: ...and go to Canada and then it can come to here.
DEE: Oh. You know, I hadn't thought of that. You know, that's interesting.
DEE: But that ship has sailed. I mean at this point, I mean that ship is gone.
CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News, New York.
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GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.