Snow, salt and just a dash of politics

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at his midday briefing on road salt at the Emergency Operations Center.

CT Mirror

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at his midday briefing on road salt at the Emergency Operations Center.

One of the many consequences of Connecticut’s getting hit with 12 winter storms is that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy held a 20-minute press conference Friday on the cost, availability and general utility of Bahamian and Chilean rock salt.

The big picture: The state Department of Transportation has plenty, though its $30 million snow-removal budget is depleted; and ConnDOT is opening its six supply depots to municipalities that are running short or are without road salt.

The trivia: Connecticut’s road salt is mined in Chile and extracted from seawater in the Bahamas. In either case, it arrives by barge at New Haven Harbor, where a shipment from International Salt now waits for the DOT. The agency is ready to share.

“I want to encourage cities and towns to reach out to us if they need salt,” Malloy said. “We can be of assistance.”

Malloy declared a state of emergency Thursday night and sought a federal disaster declaration. Its major immediate impact appears to be strengthening the state’s case for a request to allow trucks carrying salt to exceed federal weight limits on interstate highways.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Connecticut’s application would be promptly reviewed, but the agency’s guidelines on disaster assistance are not encouraging on the question of a declaration on the basis of a salt shortage.

“It is important to note that FEMA’s disaster assistance programs under the Stafford Act, as directed by Congress, are largely focused on addressing physical damage to public infrastructure and residences,” FEMA says.

Inevitably in a gubernatorial election year, a slight whiff of politics wafted over the issue.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, one of the Republicans trying to take Malloy’s job, (and one of the mayors running out of road salt), said the governor was using the powers of incumbency to command press attention.

“I wouldn’t describe a shortage of salt as a state of emergency. I think we need less declarations and more action,” Boughton said.

One of the municipalities missing from the list of 22 communities getting immediate help was Danbury, despite Boughton’s cry for help Friday on Twitter: “SOS. SOS. Need salt…”

“We submitted our paperwork yesterday. We’ve been talking to the DOT. I would hate to think they are playing political games with life-safety issues. I am assuming they are not. They are probably overwhelmed. I know we’ve gone back and forth,” Boughton said.

The 22 communities getting immediate aid were those that did not have enough salt to address the storm that ended Friday morning, said Andrew Doba, the governor’s spokesman.

On a survey provided by the governor’s office, Danbury reported that it had enough for the “current storm,” but its reserves were down to 60 tons, less than 8 percent of the 800 tons it uses in a typical storm. The next snowfall is forecast for Saturday.

In response to a question about steps taken to procure salt, Danbury replied on the survey: “Have been calling vendor daily.” Under next scheduled delivery, Danbury gave the same reply as many communities: “UNKNOWN.”

Doba said Danbury and other municipalities needing salt will be helped, regardless of how they answered the survey, Doba said.

“At the end of the day, if they need it, they’ll be provided,” Doba said.

James Redeker, the state transportation commissioner, said DOT has sufficient salt supplies to share with municipalities, especially since a shipment expected into New Haven Harbor on Feb. 28 is now due a week earlier.

ConnDOT uses 15,000 to 20,000 tons of rock salt in a typical storm. At $60 a ton, that’s $900,000 to $1.2 million a storm.

In addition, the state pre-treats roads with a liquid mixture of magnesium chloride, which saves the state money by delaying a need for plowing until after an inch or two falls, he said.

The state spends $100,000 an hour on snow removal. That includes private contractors, overtime costs, fuel and salt. ConnDOT ceased using sand eight years ago, for environmental reasons, but it also saves on spring clean-up costs.

Redeker said the DOT based its snow removal budget on 12 storms, which has been average.

Ana Radelat contributed to this report.

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