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With DRVN in New London out of salt, snow removal contractors face long lines, added costs

The past few days, private snow removal contractors who had been used to quickly getting salt from DRVN Enterprises in New London found themselves waiting in hours-long lines of trucks in New Haven and Providence.

Seven years ago, seeing a flawed salt distribution system in Connecticut, Steve Farrelly began operating DRVN at State Pier. But he is being forced out as a result of the redevelopment at the pier for offshore wind, and on Thursday, he ran out of his remaining salt there.

"It's a disaster of epic proportions," said Rick Whittle, owner of Allied Snow Plowing Removal in Mystic. The trip to Providence or New Haven means an extra two hours of travel, using subcontracted dump trucks at $90 an hour. Whittle ran through the math of added business costs at a frenetic pace, arriving at $144,000 per season if there are 20 weather events.

He said the money will be be passed on to customers, which for him include the Coast Guard Academy, courthouses in New London, state-run group homes, and Backus Hospital. He is locked into contracts for this season but indicated he'll need to raise prices next year.

Whittle said the Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday snow pattern last week also caused trouble, because "there's no way in 48 hours to get all the madness controlled."

Gateway Terminal said in a statement, sent mid-day Monday through a public relations firm, that wait times for contractors were about two to two-and-a-half hours. Gateway serves private contractors, while Morton and Champion serve the Connecticut Department of Transportation and municipalities.

Gateway Terminal said all three have ample supply for the winter, with another 55,000 tons being unloaded this week and a second vessel anticipated by mid-March. Farrelly said he didn't think the issue was a volume shortage but a distribution shortage.

Kurt Hayes, owner of Hayes Services LLC in East Lyme, had been getting salt from DRVN but said he sent two trucks to Providence on Friday and had to wait in line for two hours. He said he will add a service charge for customers, which include retail facilities and condo complexes, noting he "saw the writing on the wall" with DRVN and put this contingency in his contracts.

Hayes voiced public safety as his primary concern but noted that while DRVN was displaced because of a green energy project, "now you've got hundreds of trucks sitting for hours."

Max Reiss, spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont, said in an email Monday, "We have been made aware of contractors who had previously relied on the supply in New London, now needing to make different arrangements to fulfill their needs. This is not new, as contractors from all over Connecticut and even from other states have utilized the supply in New Haven for their salt needs for years."

What happened to DRVN?

Farrelly wrote to customers Thursday, "We are disappointed and frustrated to inform you that effective immediately, we will no longer be operating in the port of New London due to the unfortunate events that have unfolded in the last year and a half." He added that DRVN had a contingency plan with the Port of Albany while working on a more permanent solution.

Farrelly said he ran three trucks to Albany, dropped off salt in Bloomfield, and reloaded, something he could've done in 25 minutes from New London but that took seven hours.

Farrelly said he's telling existing customers — which include many municipalities, the University of Connecticut and Electric Boat — to do what works for them, because he doesn't have definitive answers and doesn't want to mislead anybody. Some are seeking new suppliers.

How did it come to this?

In January 2019, the Connecticut Port Authority reached an agreement with Gateway — a competitor of DRVN in the salt business — to run State Pier. Last February, because of the anticipated construction at State Pier, DRVN and other businesses at the pier were given a deadline of March 31 to leave.

The mild winter left DRVN with 95,000 tons of salt. DRVN got an extension to July 31, then Dec. 31, then Jan. 31, and then Feb. 28.

"The reason that they're being dislocated is to make way for what I think is a significant opportunity for the state and the offshore wind industry," said John Henshaw, who became executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority in September. He added, "It's difficult, obviously, for a business to relocate, but I do think the state is pursuing the right course and making the right kinds of investments."

Henshaw said his understanding is that DRVN was offered several options and said they had almost a year to find somewhere to move.

But Farrelly commented, "Whatever they offered to me is not a true, workable solution in my business world," and his inability to find another place wasn't for lack of trying.

Farrelly said he looked in Bridgeport, Ledyard, Montville and New London, and none of those options worked. He got approval to store salt on a property he owns in Portland, but he's restricted to 25 loads a day there whereas he did 250 at State Pier.

"If I had an equitable solution, I would be long gone," he said. "Why would I want to stay and be a tenant of my competition?"

With all the talk about the opportunities around wind, Farrelly questioned, "Where is the merit for what we've done, the jobs that we've created, the importance of the distribution of salt to preserve public safety? Why does that get discounted?"

What about municipalities?

DRVN has been providing salt to many municipalities, including Montville, Salem, the City of Groton, Voluntown, Plainville, Deep River, Essex, Rocky Hill, Wethersfield and New Haven.

On Friday, as salt distribution issues became apparent, The Day spoke with people from six municipalities, and all said they currently have enough salt.

Voluntown First Selectman Tracey Hanson said DRVN's departure from New London left the town looking for another supplier, while trying to not go over budget. She said they're in good shape for a little while but need more before the end of the winter.

Steve Biekert of the public works department in the City of Groton said they're "in a good position," and that he got 100 tons of salt from DRVN at the beginning of last week. But he said Friday he tried to call a certain vendor four or five times and hadn't gotten a response.

Waterford and the Town of Groton both switched from DRVN to Champion before winter began.

Greg Hanover, director of public works in Groton, said Champion delivers within a few days of the town calling and he's had no issues. His counterpart in Waterford, Gary Schneider, said the town may order 500 tons of salt but only get 200 or 300. But he thought that was more about the amount that could be transported in a workday than about supply in New Haven.

"The trucking is not keeping up to what the expectations are, and we were all spoiled when the pile in DRVN was over in New London," Schneider said.

East Lyme and Ledyard have contracted with Morton for at least a few years. Joe Bragaw, director of public works in East Lyme, said the town built a new dome about three years ago that doubled storage capacity, and said as of Friday the town had enough salt to get through four or five storms.

e.moser@theday.com

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