New York wants local governments to buy American-made road salt. Why some believe that could be a costly move

02 Aug 2022 11:32 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

New York wants local governments to buy American-made road salt. Why some believe that could be a costly move | Local News |

Major local governments like Erie County buy tons of road salt every year to keep roadways safe and ice free during Western New York's frigid winters.

But a state bill requiring that rock salt be purchased in only the United States has gotten the attention of highway superintendents around the state. The proposed law could cost Erie County hundreds of thousands of dollars, and other communities are facing the same type of increase.

"It really boils down to two things: We’re concerned about the increased cost, as expressed in the letter, and we’re concerned that if you limit the number of suppliers, that we may have some problems getting supplies of road salt when we really need them at critical times during the winter," said Bruce Geiger, legislative representative for the New York State County Highway Superintendent's Association, which wants Gov. Kathy Hochul to veto the bill.

The state's Buy American Salt Act, which has passed in the Assembly and State Senate, was co-sponsored by Sen. Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo.

The concerns raised by the association led to changes in the bill that would allow local and state government to buy from foreign sources if the requirement to buy in the United States "would result in unreasonable costs." The bill also allows governments in New York to buy foreign salt if there is an insufficient domestic supply.

That change should put everyone at ease, said representatives for Kennedy and other bill proponents.

"The provisions of this bill would not apply if the American-mined cost is not reasonable, not in the public's best interest or not readily available," said Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, in a statement to The Buffalo News. "This bill simply allows state and local governments to go above the lowest bid in order to support jobs right here in New York and in this country."

New York State is home to two salt mines. One is owned by American Rock Salt, which produces 4 million tons of salt a year and is based in Livingston County. The other is the Cayuga Salt Mine in Tompkins County, owned by Minnesota-based Cargill.

American Rock Salt is the larger of the two mines and is locally owned and operated, employing roughly 400 employees, said Chief Administrative Officer Mark Assini. The mine represents the single largest employer in Livingston County.

"We are the largest salt mine in the United States," he said.

Supplying rock salt in New York is not a problem, he said. But freighters docking in New York ports and bringing in rock salt from Egypt, Morocco and Chili is, he said.

Those countries offer substandard pay and don't have the same regulatory oversight regarding environmental protection or miner safety, he said, citing Egypt in particular for human rights violations.

Those imports have caused American Rock Salt to lose between 300,000 and 400,000 tons of salt business a year, he said.

"That's a big deal for us," he said. "That's several weeks of work for our employees."

Opponents of the bill cite two problems. The first is that for some New York counties near the Canadian border, like Erie County, the law makes it harder to purchase salt from Canada, which is geographically close and not comparable with overseas foreign suppliers.

Erie County likes to have salt-buying options from multiple suppliers to safeguard against potential supply shortages, said Erie County Public Works Commissioner William Geary.

Assini also conceded that the law was not meant to apply to countries like Canada, though he also said American Rock Salt is easily capable of supplying sufficient salt nationwide. The only snag that exists is the amount of salt that truckers can physically deliver.

Geiger, of the highway superintendents association, also said he worried about the vague language that exists to allow governments to buy from foreign sources in certain circumstances.

"Who makes that determination?" he said, expressing concern about municipalities' potential exposure to litigation.

Geary said Erie County typically buys from domestic suppliers like American Rock Salt but also wants the flexibility of contracting with suppliers across the border. 

A spokesman for Hochul said the governor is reviewing the legislation. Assini said he's hopeful the governor will sign the pro-American labor bill into law around Labor Day.

Despite Erie County budget concerns expressed two weeks ago, the County Executive's Office said it has no opinion about the pending legislation. Officials with American Rock salt said the county contracted to buy salt from American Rock Salt earlier this month. An Ontario-based salt supplier, Compass Minerals, came in with a higher price this season. 

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