Roads will be shut as salt supply runs out
Cabinet accused of failing to deal with worsening crisis
GARDAI will be forced to close a swathe of major roads over the weekend as supplies of salt to keep them open finally run out.
As the Government was last night accused of dismally failing to deal with the crisis, even more severe weather is forecast for the next 72 hours.
Thousands of schools will not now reopen until well into next week at the earliest.
Local authorities are likely to run out of salt in just two days, raising fears that gardai may be forced to close roads.
Last night, Environment Minister John Gormley insisted the country would not grind to a halt as the National Roads Authority (NRA) said that "hard choices" would have to be made on which roads will stay open.
City and county councils are spreading 20,000 tonnes of salt a week to keep national routes open, but just 9,000 tonnes will be delivered next week -- less than half the amount needed.
"Hard choices have already been made and the focus has been on the main national routes, which carry most of the traffic," an NRA spokesman said. "Now that supplies are running so low, more hard choices will have to be made.
"That call (to close roads) has to happen at the local level from gardai and the local authority."
The NRA has been tasked with sourcing salt for local authorities and ensuring the best use of existing supplies, but it admitted it would be at least a week before new supplies -- if they are available -- would land here.
But the Government rejected claims it had failed to respond to the crisis. Yesterday, it refused to declare the weather crisis a "national emergency", but it did convene its interdepartmental emergency planning committee to coordinate a response.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen denied the Government had been slow to respond, but admitted supplies of salt were running low.
"I wouldn't agree. I think the response is a local response, and the local authority response has been there for the last 20 days dealing with the weather conditions as they have emerged and evolved," he said.
"The question of availability of salt comes into play, particularly after next weekend."
He was also forced to defend the absence of Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, who is abroad on holidays.
"I haven't spoken to the minister today but I just want to make the point that he will be returning this week," he said.
Mr Dempsey does not plan to cut his holiday short and is due back in Ireland at the weekend.
The Army was on standby last night to help out struggling local authorities, but it emerged that few had asked for help. Troops at 17 barracks were ready with an array of equipment and expertise to help Ireland battle the cold snap.
The late call on the nation's emergency coordination committee comes as local authorities ran out of rocksalt, phone lines in Wicklow failed and one Dublin council warned it was running out of water.
Met Eireann warned the big freeze could continue for at least another week as bus services were cancelled and doctors in the west said they were unable to see patients because of the treacherous conditions.
Environment Minister John Gormley has now 'taken charge' and admits it is a 'major situation' because it is the longest cold spell since 1963
Last night, he revealed that that the NRA was looking at other options -- including the purchase of expensive commercial salt instead of rocksalt to treat roads. Mr Gormley also said current supplies of rocksalt would "only last a few days", although these could be extended by mixing them with grit.
The Cork-based Irish International Trading Corporation said it would have to ration its incoming salt shipments because of desperate pleas for supplies from local authorities.