Magazine article The New Yorker

The Mountain

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Mountain

Article excerpt

THE MOUNTAIN

--Ian Frazier

A person pacing off the length of the salt mountains at the Atlantic Salt Incorporated docks, not far from the ferry terminal on Staten Island, walks a third of a mile before getting to the end of them. Their sides are sloped, about four stories high, and mostly covered with heavy vinyl tarps held down at regular intervals by sandbags filled with salt. Workers walk on a narrow path on top, and look small up there. Next to the salt mountains are the dove-gray waters of the Kill Van Kull, traversed by towering container ships, tugboats, and local industrial vessels. Gulls creak and wheel overhead, as do the clouds and winds and helicopters and flags and everything. After a while, if you lick your lips, you taste Chilean salt.

A front loader digs its bucket into the salt at an end where it is uncovered and dumps load after load into trucks, which then drive to road-salt sheds throughout the city and beyond. The woman in the office trailer at the dock refers all inquiries to a phone number at the company headquarters, in Massachusetts. Dan Adams, a facilities architect and salt expert at the company, explains that this particular salt comes from Chile's Atacama Desert, known as the driest place on earth. In some parts of the Atacama, decades go by without a drop of rain. Even the roads there are made of salt. Mining machines dig into deposits four hundred and fifty feet thick--an ancient trapped sea--and then other machines crush the salt and sift it and treat it with anticaking agents. At a nearby port, it is loaded onto cargo ships about eight hundred feet long and a hundred feet wide, with drafts of forty feet. Each ship can carry fifty thousand tons of salt or more. A ton of salt costs the city fifty-nine dollars. The Staten Island mountains contain perhaps two hundred thousand tons of salt.

"That will all go in a couple of big snowstorms," Dan Adams says. "The company has a public-safety responsibility never to run out, so right now it has more salt ships on the ocean and headed for New York. It usually takes about three weeks for the voyage from Chile. The ocean is unpredictable, and there can be backups at the Panama Canal, so we have to plan ahead. The way you can tell Chilean salt, it's kind of pink. That's from the desert's reddish-tan sands. …

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