Originally created 03/14/03

Terrorism fears lead to strict truck checks



Approximately eight out of 10 goods shipped in the United States are delivered by trucks every day, according to the American Trucking Associations. That being the case, trucking officials have been preparing since Sept. 11, 2001, for a terrorist threat.

"Our customers have pushed us to be more alert on our pickup and deliveries," said John Mills, the general manager of Sanders Truck Transportation Co. Inc. of Augusta. "We used to pick up a load and deliver it two days later. Now we pick it up and deliver it that day. That's less chance for a truck to be idle."

A recent nationwide alert by the ATA for drivers to take more steps to secure their vehicles from terrorists should only heighten the awareness. The alert came soon after the arrest of Al-Qaida operative Khalid Mohammad, who allegedly explored the use of trucks as weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Mills' company delivers to local companies, including PCS Nitrogen Fertilizer in Augusta - a company that is of particular interest to the trucking industry because of its potentially dangerous cargo.

"We've got our antennas up," said Virgil Fowler, the safety, health and environmental manager for PCS Nitrogen. "We understand the potential, and we don't take it lightly."

PCS Nitrogen, which is one of the largest producers of ammonium nitrate in Georgia, is taking steps to protect shipments against terrorists.

"When we go to a higher level of alert, the security just rachets up," Mr. Fowler said. "And it's going to go along with truckers' alerts, too."

Truck shipments occur at PCS Nitrogen 24 hours a day, Mr. Fowler said. Kevin Chambers, of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said PCS Nitrogen has a daily average of about 50 million pounds of ammonium nitrate and can house up to 111.6 million pounds of the substance, which is produced for fertilizer use but can become explosive under extreme shock or high temperatures.

To put that into perspective, government officials say Timothy McVeigh used 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate in the 1995 truck bomb that took down the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

Because of that danger, Mr. Fowler said, his company is taking precautions.

"There's an awful lot of scrutiny taking place," he said, noting that truck drivers are asked a series of questions. "... If he (the driver) doesn't have the right answers, he just doesn't get the load."

Drivers have their pictures taken at the plant and then matched with a previous photo to verify their employment. Trucks entering the company are searched for explosives.

"We also have systems where we actually track the load from the time it leaves our place to its destination," Mr. Fowler said, adding that if a shipment doesn't arrive in time, "we're on the phone with ATF, FBI, everyone who needs to know."

Mr. Fowler said security procedures have been in place since Sept. 11, 2001, but since then, "we've just been fine-tuning it."

Harold Mays, the owner of Mays International Trucks Sales on Gordon Highway, said that if a terrorist wanted to purchase or steal a new truck, there would be certain hurdles. His company's new trucks are fenced in, and a guard is on duty 24 hours a day. Background checks are performed on customers.

Investigator Randy Hayes, of the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, said thefts of 18-wheelers have been "very rare" in the Augusta area. Still, Mr. Fowler said his company will remain vigilant.

"We can never relax," he said.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.