A Rather Interesting Story about Midnight Intrigue, Yellow Centerlines, and the Environment...

For reasons that will appear obvious a little later on, an acquaintance of mine is no longer in the road-striping business.

That’s right: Road striping.

Not road stripping (with two “p’s”). I have no idea what that might entail, but painting the stripes on the road is called “road striping”. It’s actually quite a business. Several hundred million dollars are spent each year by federal, state, and local governments to apply (and re-apply) the yellow and white (and, in some instances, black) paint to paved roads all over the country. And on runway tarmacs; and parking lots.

One must “pre-qualify” as a federal highway contractor to have access to the competitive bid-letting  process for most of this work. Of course, dealing with the federal government as a contractor requires the patience of Job to learn the byzantine rules about work-place safety, federal hiring laws, performance bonds, prevailing wage laws, and on and on and on. This is before you even purchase your first gallon of paint.

Purchasing the paint, though, is when things get REALLY interesting.

Back in the old days, when folks started to recognize the danger of cars going north and south on the same strip of concrete, people who belonged to the local Triple A would amble out to the highway with a brush and a can of paint and, well–, paint a line down the center of the road, and thus create from one lane, two lanes:

One for the north-bound motorist, and one for the south.

Usually, the paint came from the local painter (in those days before pre-mixed paints), who had the pigment, the “vehicle” (which was usually linseed oil, or gum varnish), some white lead, and a Bunsen burner. He’d make a couple of gallons, give it to the jaunty fellow with the Barney Olfield goggles and paintbrush, and wish him luck.

Somehow, without all the rules and regulations, civilization advanced in this manner: The road got striped.

Fast forward to the late-1970’s.

The bulk of the Interstate Highway System was finished by then, with only the small city-connector routes yet to complete. Already, federal contracts were being “let” to begin the first bits of major re-construction. Many of these miles had previously been turned over to localities (counties, municipalities and so on), for the snow removal and basic maintenance. NOW, though, money was available for maintenance that hadn’t been before from this bottomless pit of federal largesse that suddenly appeared for Interstate Maintenance.

So, new contractors verily appeared from the mists to provide that maintenance. Often as a subcontract, the newly “roto-milled” or repaved road needed, obviously, to be re-striped; The paving contractor didn’t have a striper, so, the prime contractor would hire one; Road-striping firms began popping up like dandelions after a May morning rain.

The host county where the maintenance was being done would also piggy-back it’s trunkline re-striping projects atop the federal contracts, and thus save a bit of money, and maybe snitch some federal revenue-sharing dollars. Some counties already had a striping crew, but would grab some of this money for itself, or discontinue it’s operations, and let the private firms handle the paint, and traffic cones, and reflective glass beads, and labor, labor, labor.

Thus, my friendly acquaintance Mr. Owen found himself in the road-striping business. At first, there were few competitors, and, quite suddenly, nearly every other county in the state wanted their roads re-striped (-the magical appearance of the federal revenue-sharing bucks, you know). His crews, which eventually swelled to three full-time gangs, each complete with striping truck, traffic control truck, broom truck, tender trucks, and so on–were, as late as 1987, on the road 24/7 during the summer months. Usually, there were seven to ten guys on a single crew.

Road-stripers in the summertime: It’s so, so American that Nat King Cole could have sung about it…

Most of us have labored under some traffic deadline or other, in the high heat of summer, intent on some distant destination in five minutes–, when we roar upon a road striping crew, putt-putting along at ten miles an hour on  a 65 mile per hour road. There’s always some sunburned guy with filthy jeans and no shirt, but wearing an incongruous chartreuse safety-vest and hard-hat (always a hard hat, even though there is nothing to fall on his head), dangling off the back end of the road-striping truck, deftly swinging orange cones in a rhythm that places a cone right on the wet paint every two hundred yards or so as the striping truck creeps along.

Meanwhile, the traffic behind this jolly fellow is backing up several miles, and some jackass invariably gets frustrated and peels out from behind the striping truck, cuts over the wet paint, and barely misses an oncoming UPS truck barreling down the road in the opposite direction. Such is life when lived on a striping crew: Dust, traffic, jackasses, sweltering heat in hardhats, and noxious fumes from a two-part epoxy paint that gums up everything.

That paint is really something: It has to be fluid enough to be aerosolized and sprayed, and then dry quickly enough so that every car in the country isn’t driving around with charlock-yellow all over it. And, just as the paint is laid down, it has to be sticky enough to accept the sand-like glass beads, which are puffed over the wet paint in a fine dusting in order to lend a degree of nighttime reflectivity. A road-stripe isn’t a simple road-stripe anymore.

The paint comes in those ubiquitous 55-gallon steel drums (-at least it did, back when Owen was in the business. Perhaps that’s changed now, and, like everything else, the paint comes in blow-molded plastic barrels). A separate hardener is added to the paint just before it is sprayed. And one single stake-rack truck follows the whole parade, carrying row upon row of paint drums, some empty, some full.

Owen’s firm would collect hundreds and hundreds of these barrels. A single large job, after all, might consume some 100 to 120 barrels. In house-painting terms, that’s 50,000 gallons of paint. All for a stripe that’s only some five inches wide. At the end of the season, despite their best efforts to give the empty  barrels away, Owen’s fleet-yard would be jammed with empties, sometimes stacked five or six high.

Like any empty paint can, these 55-gallon drums are hard to “recycle”. The paint sticks to the rims, the ribs, the ridges and, unless they are cleaned out immediately, they are fairly useless as containers of paint. And, absent the hardener, the paint just sort of becomes a half-dried sticky goo over time.  Parks departments sometimes like the clean ones for trash barrels. Every once in a while, someone might want a couple to make a floating dock. Otherwise, the empty barrels are fairly useless, and they piled up in Owen’s yard like beer cans after a frat party.

Being a federal contractor, and located in close proximity to the State Capitol, Owen was very used to the tender mercies of all the state, federal and local bureaucrats and inspectors sniffing about the place. Was there enough fire extinguishers? Did everyone have a hard hat? Were there the proper number of women and minority hires on each crew? and on and on. And a road-striping crew is about as public display of government activity as one can find, so there was no hiding any laxity.

Some things, though, attract the amorous attention of the overseers and inspectors better than others. Nothing attracts the sniffing of an EPA enforcer, for example, like the sight of an empty 55-gallon drum. And Owen’s yard, at the end of a season was JAMMED with them.

That next spring, the EPA rapped on Owen’s office door. What was in all those barrels, out in his yard?– the visiting pencil-neck bureaucrat with the dandruff boulders hanging off his collar wanted to know.

“Empty paint barrels”. Duh. These guys from the Govmint, they’re sharp as bowling balls. Well, not quite empty: Each barrel likely had an inch of yellow or white glop at the bottom.

Forthwith, Owen was given 90 days to get rid of them. Ground water contamination, you know. Even though the paint wasn’t water-borne, and even a man attempting to pour the paint directly on the ground from the half-hardened goo couldn’t MAKE it happen. That, and it was in sealed steel containers. On an asphalt parking lot. Oh, well. The great God from the EPA had spoken, and so it was to be…

Owen hired a couple guys from Manpower to scrape out as much of the stuff as they could from the hundreds and hundreds of barrels, and found a steel recycling firm that would take them, as long as they were PAID to take them. As I say, there were hundreds and hundreds of barrels, and just having this company come and get them cost several thousand dollars. In the 1980’s.

The price of compliance…

Anyhoo, the next time the Hank Kimball bureaucrat from the EPA stopped by, there were still four barrels left in Owen’s yard. Sorry, Owen: $1,000 fine if they aren’t gone in 14 days, with a $1,000 fine each day until they are gone…

“But, I can’t find anyone to take those barrels,” Owen pleaded, “Those four are filled with the residue and skins from the other hundreds. No one will take them, and I can’t find a landfill to take them, either.”

Eh, so what?- your problem, loser. Take it up with an attorney, was pretty much the answer. The tender loving customer care from the EPA was a beautiful thing to behold. Now, remember: Owen’s firm did about $2 million per yearin total revenue, back in the day, and he had about 45 employees, all told. We aren’t talking about Raytheon and Love Canal here: This is just some schlub with a couple road-striping trucks. Doing work that THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT INSISTED ON DOING.

At first, Owen thought of going to an attorney; He was very troubled about the un-announced inspection by a regulatory agency he didn’t even know he was under the rubric of, and whose authority seemed specious. But, the clock was ticking, and environmental law wasn’t the industry back then that it is now.

So, Owen had a fortnight to find someone to take the four barrels. And, like the other five or six hundred other barrels, he had to provide written documents proving that a licensed hauler had removed them, and done the approved things WITH them.

There were a couple of options– or so it seemed at first: One was to send them to a federal disposal facility in Indiana. This seemed like the best alternative; Indiana was closest to Owen’s yard. But, when the trucking firm he hired (it had to be licensed, too) got to the Indiana state line, they were refused entry because the trucking firm wasn’t licensed in Indiana… even though it was licensed in every state SURROUNDING Indiana.

Owen’s next step was to find a firm that WAS licensed in Indiana. There were none in his state that were licensed both in the haulage of this particular paint residue AND licensed in Indiana. So much for THAT option.

Next, he found a licensed incinerator in Pennsylvania. They agreed to take the paint barrels. It seems this incinerator did quite a bit of this type of work. But, as it turned out, they DIDN’T take a certain formulation of paint that Owen MIGHT have used, so they refused the barrel shipment at the last minute, too.

And now, Owen was running out of time before the $1,000 fines started hitting. Remember: He’s trying to do business at the same time he’s cavorting around like an Irish Setter puppy trying to satisfy the EPA and their fat, flaccid regulations. And, like most of us, he rather liked the idea of obeying the law, when he could. But, his options were rapidly thinning out.

He hit on a last-gasp idea: He knew the County Garage in which his company did business owned their own road-striper, and the Superintendent of the garage was on his golf league. He made a quick phone call to this golfing buddy.

“You folks must have these barrels lying around. What do YOU do with them?” Owen inquired.

“Oh, just bring ’em over. We’ll take care of it” was the response. Owen’s fellow golfer also said he’d provide all the documentation that the EPA might need, too. “Don’t worry,” Owen was told again, “Just bring ’em by”.

So, Owen had a fellow from the crew take the barrels over to the County Garage, and they took custody of the criminal barrels– in the very nick of time. The next day was the EPA’s zero-hour. When the crewmember made it back to Owen’s yard, he delivered the little packet of papers that proved Owen had acted in accordance with the silly law. And the little busybody from the EPA wasn’t skeptical in the least, and the matter was closed.

Owen used this method a couple more times over the few years he remained in business: He’d call up the friend at the County Garage, and they’d take the barrels, no questions asked. A few years on, by the time he got out of the Federal Higway Contractor racket, Owen had enough of the reams of paperwork, the countless wasted hours of compliance, the maddening and useless regulation. The margins were getting thinner and thinner, and everybody, it seemed, that could spell the word “paint” had gotten into the business by then. By the time Saddam Hussein rolled into Kuwait, Owen rolled out of the business.

Some years later, Owen was golfing with his friend from the County Garage, both now retired and living in Florida.

“By the way,” he asked, one mild early summer evening, after the alcohol had lubed the jawbone of the friend, “what did you guys ever do with those barrels I sent you? The ones with the paint skins?”

“Hummph” his friend replied, “Remember Polk Road?” he asked.

Yes, Owen remembered Polk Road. It was a little two-track that led to a defunct cul-de-sac in the hinterlands of the county, out near a rural spur of an Interstate. It terminated in a swamp.

“We just took all our stuff we couldn’t get rid of and dumped it off the bank on Polk Road. We’d usually wait until the fall, or when it was dark, and we take a truckload out there. They’ll probably find Jimmy Hoffa there someday.”

And the county, back then, was immune from some of the same laws that Owen had to follow, and his friend gave him slightly hinky papers from the stack of blank forms in his office. No one, least of all Owen, was ever the wiser. Since those days, now some twenty years on, that end of Polk Road has become impassable and overgrown. Only a nuclear blast will unearth the secrets of Polk Road.

So, there it was: Private enterprise, in its attempt to comply with the unctuous, never-ending law (and spending countless hours and dollars to do so), turned to the Government to help obey the law, but became complicit in breaking the law. Without ever even knowing it.

And the really funny thing? The whole conga-line of ridiculousness was started in an attempt to “save” the “groundwater”. And the barrels wound up in a swamp– Put there during a midnight Keystone caper, by your friendly Government.

Let’s remember this little parable in these days of trying to find places to cut the budget. I think I’d start with the EPA, and work my way down the list.

Pace Ronald Reagan, they were from the Government, and they were there to Help.