Thursday, September 13, 2007

Beefing up the bees

I knew very little “buzz on bees” until Sandi Soendker, Land Line’s managing editor, pitched the idea about doing a story on the disappearance of the honeybees last Friday at our daily news budget meeting.

Since then, I have been researching away on “colony collapse disorder” – or CCD – which could have devastating effects on our economy if the bees don’t thrive and have a good pollination season. This could also have a big financial impact on bee haulers who count on the loads of bees out to California and other states every year.

More than 1 million colonies of bees will swarm the West Coast and the almond fields in the spring. They are trucked out there early to “beef them up” for their big job ahead. Some beekeepers have reported losing up to 90 percent of their bees to CCD. Fewer bees means fewer loads of bees, as well as fewer loads of fruits and vegetables for produce truckers to haul when its harvest time.

Everybody in the food chain will be affected if the honeybees don’t have a good pollination season – from beekeepers to growers to truckers to consumers – everyone will feel the “sting” if the bees don’t have a good season next spring.

In June, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said if left unchecked, CCD has the potential to cause a “$15 billion direct loss of crop production and $75 billion in indirect losses.” That’s a lot of money riding on the performance of roughly one million honeybee colonies in the U.S.

Did you know that more than 100 fruits and vegetables, including almonds, apples, oranges, blueberries, carrots, broccoli sweet cherries, soybeans and many others – all depend on honeybees for pollination? I didn’t.

Before researching this story, I never thought about how the honeybees arrived at their destinations to do their jobs – did you?

In talking to Richard Adee of Adee Honey Farms in Bruce, SD, I found out the majority of his 80,000 colonies of honeybees are hauled on flatbed trailers. Adee supplied me with several names of truckers he works with for my story – I found many of his bee haulers are OOIDA members, including Kenny Wyman of Summit, SD.

Kenny nonchalantly said hauling bees is “just another load for him.” But, he later added, he tries to keep them happy with plenty of air flow or water so as not to anger them.

I have a new found respect for honeybees – I once thought of them as pesky insects that I tried to avoid in the past – now I am their new champion.

Color me PO’d

Despite the shade and hue my name may suggest to some, I’m green.

A corner of my kitchen is devoted to an in-house recycling center and anyone who has ever been a passenger in my car knows that I consider littering to be a deadly sin.

I have literally hugged trees – the California Redwoods left an indelible image on my 8-year-old brain during a family vacation in the late ’60s – and conservationists Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall and Steve Irwin are on my all-time hero list.

But right now I’m a little more blue than green. In fact, I’m so blue that I’m seeing red.

A deal struck between the state of California and ConocoPhillips Co. this week will see the second-largest refiner in the U.S. pay a “whopping” $10 million as a trade-off for pumping an extra 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year at its Contra Costa County refinery.

That’s right, a one-time $10 million “offset” payment is going to get this mega-company off the hook. As if that drop in the environmental bucket is going to make up for half a million tons of poison a year. (To put that $10 million into perspective, ConocoPhillips reported revenue topping $183 billion for 2006.)

Even if there was a for-sure mathematical equation to use to calculate the actual “cost” of the increased emissions that will be coming from the refinery, and even if it turned out that $10 million would cover it, ConocoPhillips wouldn’t be doing us any favors.

All the oil giant would be doing in that scenario would be allowing the environment to break even. They wouldn’t be making the air any cleaner, they just wouldn’t be making it any dirtier, and last time I checked, the status quo of smog was not at an acceptable level, especially in California.

The “offset” payment is being touted as the “first of its kind,” as if it were a major breakthrough.

It is, but it’s big oil that is getting the break.

I wonder if the California Air Resources Board would consider such a break for truckers who don’t want to comply with emissions regulations? Would they take a one-time payment from truckers who don’t want to abide by the anti-idling rules? Not bloody likely.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Goin’ UP

On Thursday, Sept. 13, I’ll be packing my suntan lotion and down parka for my almost-annual trek to the Richard Crane Memorial Truck Show in St. Ignace, MI. Located on the southern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or UP as everyone calls it, St. Ignace sits between Lakes Huron and Michigan. The show is always in mid-September, yet there have been years when you could walk around in shorts and needed 50 SPF sunblock, and other years, as this one may be, that you needed woolies and mittens at high noon.

The truck show, now in its 12th year, grew out of an antique and classic car show sponsored by local bank executive Ed Reavie. He heard about the National Association of Show Trucks and thought it would be neat to invite some of these rigs to show off alongside vintage short-block Chevys and big-fendered Packards. You know how it is –you let the trucks in and there goes the neighborhood. Within a few years, the auto show was one of the attractions, while the big rigs ruled.

St. Ignace is a tiny community adjacent to ritzy Mackinac Island. Tourism is its main industry, and many of the businesses are seasonal. So the growth of a late season – really post-tourist-season – event was a happy surprise. The town closes its main lakefront drag for more than a mile in order to park big rigs, with the overflow directed to the town’s community center.

The town sits at the northern end of the Mackinac Straits Bridge on I-75, and on Saturday night, the truckers have permission to parade across the bridge to Mackinac City at the southern end of the bridge and back. MDOT officers escort the convoy, and the rigs have permission to fire up all those not-so-legal lights and to sound airhorns at the slightest pump of arm.

This year, NAST is holding a “family reunion” of present and past members as part of the truck show. Like any organization – like any family, like any group of friends – NAST in its more than 12 years of existence has seen its share of disputes and joy. Those are all parts of the map of each life, and as a wise man once said, the map is not the journey. I’m thinking that everyone who comes will say, been there, done that, got a stack of T-shirts! And, rather than dwell on yesterday, start filling in the open territories of today and tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What more can be said about 9/11?

Today’s reminder of the 9/11 attack on America comes with its traditional images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, and the smoldering Pentagon and the Shooting Star song, “Let’s Roll,” on the radio. We all realize that life in America changed that day.

Aside from an annual memorial, 9/11 also comes with the question: “Are we more prepared for attack than we were?”

An acquaintance of mine told me that yes, we have lost many personal privacy rights, especially with phone and e-mail, but he thinks we’re probably much safer for it. It’s a fair trade-off, he believes.

Still, with as large as our government has become, and with its many tiers and all the personal information possessed and channeled from the driver’s license bureau to your local county, it’s easy to skeptically view government actions as being little more than costly red tape aimed at justifying jobs.

I wrote a daily news article today about Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff and his statement to U.S. senators this week updating them about the terrorist threat to the homeland.

Ironically, our government’s worst fears of dangerous cargo involve “a terrorist attempting to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into our country through our sea ports, land border crossings or maritime borders.”

The statement seemed particularly curious coming just days after the DOT pushed the Mexican cross-border trucking pilot program through, defying Congress and a 411-3 House vote at the time.

The U.S., in fact, isn’t interested only in allowing Mexican trucks entry, but is even planning for a Customs and Border Protection program called ACE to let trucks across border checks in 15 seconds. I can’t imagine how an estimated 70,000 shipping units that enter the U.S. every day could ever be inspected by such a system.

More on ACE is available here.

I was a month into my first full-time newspaper gig at a suburban weekly in Belton, MO, on Sept. 11, 2001. My editor sent me out to cover the lockdown at the Richards-Gebaur military base in Belton about an hour after the attacks.

I obtained permission to take pictures of the situation from the local Marine public information specialist, and also talked to the commanding officer as he made rounds later that morning.

Temporary walls barricaded much of the Marine and Army buildings at the base, and anyone entering had to obtain special permission. I snapped some shots of the checkpoint into the base and hopped back into my car to get some more pictures of the day.

Before I hit the seat, six Marines had surrounded my car and told me to freeze. A middle-aged sergeant looked over my identification, my Star-Herald business card and heard my story about getting permission, but he didn’t know what to think. That didn’t stop him from cursing “inky wretch” reporters (my words, not his) and escorting me into the headquarters building for some questioning amongst several other uniformed officers.

I don’t mind telling you that my first military arrest combined with that morning’s tension scared the daylights out of me.

No, it didn’t take long for me to realize how quickly 9/11 changed things. Here’s to hoping we’re all safer.

A light in the Forrest

I don’t know why, but for some reason “Forrest Gump” seemed to be on non-stop last month. I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and managed to watch most of it, out of order, by hitting the channel at various times of the day (and night).

I came to the conclusion that, like the Bible and the U.S. Constitution, you could apply some part of this wonderful movie to just about any situation in life.

Take the Mexican pilot program, for instance. As Forrest’s Momma used to say, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” That sure seems to be the case here.

While the companies participating may be cherry-picked to meet the program’s requirements, one has to wonder what happens when – not if – the pilot program is deemed a success. As Land Line Staff Writer David Tanner wrote elsewhere on this blog, all the pieces are in place to create a NAFTA superslab.

Or as Forrest put it: “I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.”

The U.S. lacks sufficient muscle to adequately inspect and monitor domestic truck lines – or to adequately patrol our ports and air freight centers – so where will the added oversight come from?

Nashville, where I work, has seen some pretty bad truck wrecks in the past few months, and in a lot of cases, the drivers either lacked experience or had poor driving records, or both. I already worry about domestic truck drivers and owners who can’t read or speak English – not that they all come from outside our borders – and who can’t or won’t maintain their vehicles at minimum standards of safety.

In the Darwinian world of trucking, survival is often of the cheapest, and some drivers push their luck too far trying to stay in the black. As for the others, as Forrest would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

So don’t give up questioning the whys and hows and whats of this “pilot” program. We have legitimate concerns (and we’re not alone in this). ” If the pilot program goes forward, it will move out of the bunker where it was conceived and into a glass house where all can see how well it works. Unlike Forrest, who at one point says dejectedly, “Sometimes, I guess there's just not enough rocks,” we got enough rocks to pave an exit ramp.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What a tangled Web

Every morning I walk into the office, grab a cup of mud, sit down and Google up news searches to see what’s going on with drivers, truck emissions regs and border initiatives.

The stories I find range from the bizarre, to the sad, and finally, the obvious.

As any trucker will tell you, aside from the occasional feature about a feel-good story, most of the trucking news isn’t good. Too many headlines seem to blame trucks and truckers for accidents or crimes even before police investigations are completed.

It doesn’t take too long to realize that truckers are up against a lot more than red tape, Mexican truck competition and safety problems on the docks and in shipping yards. News Web sites and blogs are growing in their power to persuade and focus debates on every topic.

Visit YouTube and type in “Mexican trucks” or “OOIDA,” and see what you get.

Click here and watch a topless guy in his dorm room give his opinion about the Mexican truck debate. YouTube’s flood of videos also lends itself to a bit of trucking glorification, as in the “Trucking in Texas” video.

Then every once in a while, I’ll come across a blog that truly illustrates the wide-open nature of the Web. Here we see an example of someone with his or her head stuck firmly in the sand. This person, who uses the name Yori Yanover and calls him or herself a “militant anti-trucker,” blasts away at trucks as “the foundation of all that’s wrong with America. They kill people, they ruin roads, they deprive working men and women of millions of work hours.”

Yanover proceeds to post pictures of “an 18-wheeler” that “tried in vain to make the turn into Rivington from Pitt” in insert-the-urban-center-of-your-choice-here-ville. It seems Yanover snapped camera phone shots of the truck, and posted them onto “Made a Trucker Flinch” blog.

It wouldn’t do much good to explain to Yanover that the laptop computer they likely uses while sitting at the corner Starbucks, nor the $18-a-pound “fair-trade” coffee Yanover drinks, nor the cell phone they used to snap shots weren’t brought to their doorstep or major retailer by camel.

Those same “gas-guzzling” trucks Yanover hates that blew “bits of carbon” into the air in the neighborhood to bring Yanover the technology they so crave. Trucks and their role in America’s economy during the last half of the 20th century probably had something to do with them having time (through vacation or retirement) to take snapshots of trucks Yanover purports to be wreaking havoc and also gives them time to urge others to do the same.

Of course, Yanover’s real expertise was revealed in the one comment someone cared to post below “Made a Trucker Flinch.”

“That’s a 14-wheeler, not an 18-wheeler,” it read.

Write it down, will ya?

Having written policies and procedures are crucial to any company’s long-term success, right? That has always been my experience. I am actually looking at the binder on my shelf at work right now that I was given when I hired on at Land Line Magazine more than a year ago. I don’t use it every day, but it is a handy reference tool to have in front of me if needed.

However, if you are a produce hauler, you are more than likely flying by the seat of your pants most of the time, which has been the case in at least two incidents in the past year involving recalled produce found to be contaminated while in transit.

After the fall 2006 E.coli outbreak in bagged spinach left many truckers “holding the bag” with recalled product on their trailers and no answers as to what to do with it, another recall – this time linked to possible salmonella contamination – has truckers asking the same question again: “What do we do?”

And while shippers in both incidents say they “verbally” communicated to get their message out about what to do and where to take the affected product, neither company has decided that having written procedures in place for truckers to follow when a recall is issued is smart business? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

If you sell a product that could potentially make people sick, and possibly kill them, if it gets into the marketplace and is contaminated – wouldn’t you want to dot all of your “i’s” and cross all of your “t’s”?

I talked recently to a Metz Fresh company spokesman who said communication with truckers was key in the containment of more than 90 percent of more than 8,100 cases of bagged spinach, which tested positive for salmonella after the product had been loaded onto trucks in late August.

However, the Metz Fresh spokesman said the company never directly communicated with the truckers – the Metz Fresh customers did, but not in writing – so who knows if the communication was accurate and consistent. It wasn’t written down.

If their verbal procedures were so effective this time, shouldn’t they want to write them down in case it happens again? I hope so – and I bet produce haulers everywhere would agree.