The bulk of the rock salt that helps clear New York City’s streets of snow and ice during the winter is purchased from mines in Chile — but a new state bill aims to push more of that business upstate.
Passed by the Legislature in June, the Buy American Salt Act would require New York municipalities to purchase domestic salt for road operations, as long as it’s available and reasonably priced compared to foreign salt. Gov. Kathy Hochul has until the end of the year to sign the act into law. Her office said she’s reviewing the legislation.
The goal of the bill is to boost local companies like American Rock Salt, which calls its mine near Rochester the country’s largest operating salt mine. The legislation was introduced and pushed by lawmakers whose districts are near upstate mines.
“Despite these mines offering good paying jobs for workers, competition with foreign salt operations has recently harmed each mine,” the bill states. “Stories of salt mined in Egypt sitting in ports along the Hudson River have become common, despite our state and country having operational salt mines here in the United States.”
City Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch has urged the governor to veto the bill. She argues that a domestic salt requirement would mean increased truck traffic to bring in the salt the city needs, and pose “too big of a risk” to the supply chain for the city’s complicated cold weather operations.
The bill might also increase the price the the city pays for rock salt by as much 25% — or up to $10 million a year, sanitation department officials said.
“Make no mistake: imposing this requirement would have a very real impact on our snow operations as early as next year,” Tisch said during a Nov. 16 City Council hearing.
The city spends about $16 million a year on road salt, buying more than 300,000 tons from suppliers Morton Salt and Atlantic Salt, according to the sanitation department. A majority of the salt bought from those companies is barged from Chile into ports on Staten Island and Newark six times a year and stored in large piles, ready to be deployed during icy and snowy weather, Tisch said.
“Delivering the same amount of salt in trucks from mines in upstate New York and the Midwest would require 10,000 long-haul truck loads per year,” Tisch said. “That is a substantial increase in the heavy-duty truck trips into the city and surrounding metropolitan region.”
An American Rock Salt official said for such a large order, the company would send the salt via freight from its mine in Livingston County to New York City.
“If we were to obtain a contract in the New York City area, it would be sold to be shipped by rail,” said Joe Bucci, the company’s director of sustainability.
Bucci said the proposed law has exemptions if the pricing for domestic salt is higher than international prices and if there isn’t enough inventory in the local mines — but the bill simply gives governments the opportunity to consider buying local salt.
“If the sanitation commissioner wanted to purchase foreign-mined salt, and not salt mined by American labor, there's nothing that is stopping that person from doing that,” Bucci said. “[The bill] gives them the freedom to consider some of the other benefits of buying salt from a domestic source.”
But the bill’s vague wording on what “unreasonable costs” and “sufficient and readily available quantities” might mean has alarmed the New York State County Highway Superintendents Association, which also is urging Hochul to veto the act.
“Who would make those determinations is not spelled out in the legislation,” said Bruce Geiger, the legislative representative for the New York State County Highway Superintendents Association.
Geiger said, given the importance of road salt to New York municipalities and the variability of winter weather, the act would hamper governments during unpredictable winters.
“One of the big difficulties is we have to order and lock in supply significantly… before the winter months, so usually in May or so. So it's hard to gauge how much we would need,” Geiger said.
If a municipality experiences an unusually snowy or inclement winter and needs to quickly buy more salt, he added, “then we'd have to go in the market to fill that. And if the market has fewer players… that raises a lot of concerns.”