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THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2007
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A worker at the city garage examines a damaged seal removed from a leaking garbage truck Wednesday. Mayor Don Kyle said now that workers know the life expectancy of the rubber seals, the Maintenance Department will regularly inspect and replace them to prevent future leaks.
Daily photo by Evan Belanger
A worker at the city garage examines a damaged seal removed from a leaking garbage truck Wednesday. Mayor Don Kyle said now that workers know the life expectancy of the rubber seals, the Maintenance Department will regularly inspect and replace them to prevent future leaks.

Spot mystery solved?
An enterprising reporter determines possible cause of puzzling white patches on streets: 'garbage juice'

By Evan Belanger
evanb@decaturdaily.com 340-2442

As I headed toward my vehicle, I knelt in the morning sun, touched the rancid puddle in the street and raised my fingertip to my nose.

Then I gagged.

What had I gotten myself into?

That was the conclusion of a two-hour search Wednesday for a Decatur garbage truck, reportedly leaking "garbage juice" on roads in Southeast Decatur.

The story started with a complaint from a resident on Apache Lane who spotted the truck leaking a liquid form of its unsanitary contents onto local streets. These are the same streets where children ride bikes, walk to their friends' houses and sometimes scrape their knees.

They also are the same streets on which mysterious white, paint-like splatters have appeared for weeks, leading to a month-long investigation by The Daily with little resolution. That was until Wednesday. I was dispatched at about 9 a.m.

The catch

After nearly an hour of aimless driving — much of it spent observing golfers at Decatur Country Club — my white whale appeared in the form of a 2006 LOAD-ALL garbage truck operated by the Decatur Sanitation Department. Garbage juice dripped from its tailgate.

Drip, drip, drip.

Thinking I was a detective on stakeout, I pulled behind the truck, keeping a healthy distance. Repeatedly, I passed the truck and pulled off just as I was taught by my extensive collection of B-grade Hollywood detective movies.

With luck, the unwitting driver would never know he was being watched.

The release

While they teach you many things in journalism classes, they don't teach how to tail a garbage truck. If they did, they would probably tell you a bright orange Suzuki Reno is no car in which to tail anyone. They would also tell you B-grade Hollywood movies are no place to learn the skill.

I was caught.

The truck rumbled to a stop. The driver stepped out and walked toward my atomic-orange hatchback.

"Can I help you with something?" he asked.

"No," I responded sheepishly. "But your truck seems to be leaking."

"I'll go get that checked out," he said, before leaving me in the road to ponder where my tail had gone south.

The chase

Crestfallen, I headed for the city's public works complex to question city officials about the leaking truck, which only weeks earlier they reported could not have caused the mystery splatters.

But as I approached, I saw the white whale pulling from the complex, still dripping its garbage-juice cocktail onto the streets. Dropping my average-motorist-in-a-reasonably-priced-car persona, a low-speed pursuit ensued.

Drip, drip, drip.

Feeling bolder, I passed the truck during one of its stops, exited my vehicle and approached the driver.

"You're still leaking," I said.

"It's just water," the driver said.

"Is your truck supposed to be leaking water?"

"My supervisor is on his way out here. He can talk to you."

Enter supervisor

We were watching the garbage drip when supervisor Reginald Carter arrived.

He informed me a bad tailgate seal on the truck was causing the leak, but it wouldn't take much to repair — a $27 rubber seal could remedy the situation.

"Do you think the truck should be out here operating with a bad seal?" I asked.

"Let me get my supervisor out here for you to talk to," he said.

After a few minutes on his cell phone, he informed me Public Works Superintendent Franklin Parham was too busy to come to the scene, but the truck would definitely be repaired as soon as it returned from its route. If not repairable, he said, it would be parked until parts arrived.

Epilogue

Later that day, Parham invited me to the city garage to observe the truck's repair.

He said the seals sometime fail on the trucks, which can carry up to 20 cubic yards of garbage.

They had already begun inspecting and replacing the seals on all 12 city garbage trucks.

"We've got more seals on order, and they'll be installed as soon as they arrive," he said.

Thus, ended the mystery of Decatur's road spills.

According to the Public Works Department, it is unlawful to place paint or any other hazardous chemicals in city waste boxes. The trucks are only permitted to carry solid waste.

All 75 waste-hauling trucks licensed to operate in Morgan County must undergo annual inspections, according to the Morgan County Health Department. Parham said the truck involved in Wednesday's incident had not yet had its inspection.

Fred Vengrouskie, an inspector for the Health Department's Environmental Division, said the state classifies leaking garbage trucks as a public nuisance and health hazard, and violators can be cited.

The Daily was unable to contact him Wednesday to see if the city will be cited for Wednesday's incident.

Mayor Don Kyle said now that workers know the life expectancy of the rubber seals, the Maintenance Department will regularly inspect and replace them to prevent future leaks.

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