Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Truck's Eye View of Trash

I had a short spell of under-employment between a construction job and the new one. Always thought "little money better than no money", so I hired out with Labor Ready for day work until I got a "regular" job. Among other adventures, I went out three times riding the back of a Trashaway/Republic residential trash collection truck. A genuine eye-opener.

Before I say anything else, kudos to the guys who do this every day. It is hard, physical labor and these guys are far from over-paid. I did routes from Lakeview to Southwest Blvd, just in time for first lawn-mowing. A few customers will leave bottles of chilled water or sport drinks, you know who you are and the gesture is greatly appreciated. Also, those of you who bag the trash so we don't have to pick up the can, both the American plastics industry and we on the back of the truck salute you.

Note for the record, based on my "back-of-the-truck" survey, Lakeview survives on a diet of Dominos pizza and Keystone Light. Southwest, I saw more Pizza Hut boxes, more wine bottles than beer cans. (Sorry Papa Johns, I call'em like I see'em).

Now I have been putting household trash in a friend's commercial dumpster for years, we had a trash-strewing dog in the neighborhood and I got tired of picking up my trash from the length of the alley. Might be a waste of the $8.90 a month on my utility bill, but it's neater. It's also why I never gave this much thought until I actually rode the route.

Now to the fun part; City ordinance v complaints. Just for fun and boredom avoidance, I got a copy of the contract between City and Republic Waste Services. Then I went to City Ordinance, where Sec 11.400 describes "Duties of Customers" Speaking of residences, you ARE a "customer". Businesses may opt for another qualified carrier, but for residences, you are a Republic customer. Your bill, like mine is on your water bill.

One customer duty is to provide an appropriate container with a "close fitting" lid (to keep out varmints and feral cats). A common complaint is "I put the bags in the can, use the lid, after pickup my can is tossed back, the lid is never put back".

That was my lesson one. First stop, I picked up the cans, dumped'em and I'm putting the cans back upright with the lids back on. My full-time counterpart hollers at me, "Forget that, keep it moving, that's not our job!". Another stop, there's loose milk jugs and cereal boxes around, but not in the cans. Again I'm told, "Not our job! Keep it moving".

Now I will say, anything in a bag in the vicinity of the can, we picked up. My gig here was just in time for first lawn mowing of the season. We had a couple of stops that had 20 or more bags of lawn clippings. Wet, heavy and they don't compress worth a hoot, but we picked them all up. From magazines to dead pets, if it's in a bag, it gets picked up. There is a limit on weight (60 lbs) and size, but that was rarely enforced. For instance, if you set out a 55 gallon steel drum with no handles and fill it with rocks, nope, they ain't gonna throw out their back even trying, nor should they.

I mentioned "duties of customers", how about duties of collectors? In ordinance that's Sec. 11.403. The parts of that that matter are; twice a week collection, some holidays excepted; and "systematic, efficient manner to keep the entire city in a clean and sanitary condition". In the contract we have II(2.1.1) "Contractor agrees to maintain a high standard of service for the protection of the health and welfare of the public and in performance of this Agreement, will use the number of trucks and personnel as required by the amount of solid waste it is required to collect".

I'm bothering with this because we fall short of the "keep the entire city in a clean and sanitary condition" standard expressed in Sec 11.403. Part of this is Republic keeping its employees at a dead run, but a BIG part of it is sloppy residents. If you sort of loosely toss the remnants of Sunday's BBQ over the fence in the general direction of the can rack, don't be surprised if the underpaid guy on the back of the truck leaves it. Other side of that, customers who do their part deserve to see the trash can put back where it was, with a lid and it would have killed ya' to pick up the cereal box that missed the can?

Something I found in Sec. 11.406; the person who ought to be fielding these calls would be the City Sanitation Inspector. That person shall "regularly inspect the streets and alleys" and has authority to issue citations up to $2,000. It would make sense for this Sanitation Inspector to be the same person who will be looking for alley parking violations (as recently directed by Council). Under 11.406 the City Manager shall appoint this Sanitation Inspector, but after bouncing from Legal to Manager's office to Health and finally to Code Enforcement this morning, this seems to have fallen through the cracks. Best I have found, we have not had such an Inspector since Mike Loving departed city employment.

From the back of the truck I can say we have some fairly rancid alleys. Trashaway could spend a little more time on its runs, but honestly, most of the blame goes to sloppy residents. I doubt the situation or the smell will improve much until City has someone patrolling and issuing warnings backed up by threat of a pricey ticket. As summer brings hotter days some of these pits are going to start seriously reeking if they aren't cleaned up.

Of course ordinance doesn't say WHO city manager shall appoint. Until my arm heals enough to shift gears, I'm at loose ends, but I can still drive an automatic. Gas money and cheap pay, I'll troll for parking and sanitation, pass out tickets by the ream! Yeah well, we really do need somebody doing this and right now, it ain't getting done.

Meantime, if it crosses your mind to leave the trash guys 3 soda pops or brownies, I can promise it will be appreciated. These folks work hard, rain, shine, hot or cold, kinda like the mailman but a lot less pay and the ones I met try hard to do a good job.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Just for Fun Friday

I normally speak to local issues, that is our charter here. I've been out of work due to a broken arm and spend more time than usual 'crawling the web". I give you a selection of items I have found amusing. Warning: this is what can happen when you simply has too much time on your hands.

No matter how stupid you may feel over some recent goof; there is someone dumber. Today in Norfolk Virginia 11 Somalis were charged with piracy and are subject to mandatory life sentences. Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden has become a cottage industry and too often a profitable one, most shipping companies end up paying the ransom to get crews and cargoes returned. This case involves two separate, but similar incidents. Both cases, these homebrewed pirates, small craft, handheld weapons up to RPGs took on US Naval warcraft, in one case the frigate USS Nicholas, the other an amphibious landing ship USS Ashland.

I've seen pictures of both US ships and they look like just what they are; about 650' of heavily armed, well-crewed warships. The story of the ambitious ant crawling up an elephant's leg with rape as his intent comes to mind.

As long as we are on Naval issues, Sec. of the Navy Ray Mabus announced today that the next San Antonio class Amphibious Transport Ship will be the USS John P Murtha. San Antonio class ships are more modern cousins of the Ashland mentioned above. Such ships are designed to deliver up to 700 Marines and supplies with air coverage and transport capability to wherever in the world.

It is customary at this point to include language about "mean no disrespect for the dead", but in this case, I cannot do even that. The recently deceased Murtha was a king of the "earmark" second only to Robert Byrd, Murtha was well known in Pennsylvania for plastering his name on anything that would stand still long enough for the paint to dry. More to the point, Murtha had accused the Marine Corps of systemic abuse and war crimes against Iraqi civilians, a charge he had to withdraw for lack of evidence. To say the Corps is unhappy with the naming is a huge understatement and it was a tone-deaf move on Mabus' part. A popular suggestion in the blogoshere is to name a Naval "head" after Murtha, which I guess would be the John john. Or dedicate the USS Murtha to hauling supplies of pork. Three of the ships in this class are the USS New York, Arlington and Somerset, each named for a 9/11 crash site.

On to a topic just quivering of its weightiness, an Islamic cleric, one Hojatolesam Kazem Sedighi has announced that recent earthquakes have been caused by women who go about (in his opinion) indecently dressed. A Purdue University senior, one Jennifer McCreight, has taken issue with both the politics and the physics of the cleric's allegation and is inviting women around the world to protest by going about next Monday more um, skimpily attired than usual. Now this is "community activism" I can support! I hope we see full coverage of the uncoverage on the cable news channels. If the house falls in due to earthquake Tuesday, I retract all of the above, and Jan will start wearing a veil.

As serious as it has been for air travel, the story of the Iceland volcano has provided some amusement. The name of the volcano is Eyjafjallokull. Care to try to say that out loud? Don't bother, I've seen a phonetic rendering of it, unless you are Icelandic you will get it wrong. I caught a montage of brave but foolish local newscasters trying to wrap their English tongues around this name.

Anyone remember Gary Gilmore (Let's do it) the famous Utah death penalty inmate who insisted on death by firing squad? We got another one, Ronnie Lee Gardner who killed an attorney in an escape attempt, 1977. Utah has changed the law, now does lethal injection, but Gardner's case pre-dates the change, he is still allowed to choose. This will be a predictable media circus.

On to sports, some still claim baseball is the American passtime. Facts seem to argue otherwise. Last night the opening round of the NFL draft outdrew NBA playoff games. NOT a football game, but live broadcast of the draft! Me, I read it this AM, I'd as soon watched grass grow, but there it is. Also yesterday, Yankees/Bosox, A-Rod initiated the first triple play for the Yankees in 40 years! And the Yankees managed to lose the game! When I was a kid, this would have been front-page, above-the-fold headlines.

Don't know if they still do, but science teachers in my day (about Paleolithic it seems) would take a helium balloon, have one of us breathe it and then speak in a high-pitched, squeaky voice. Object was to demonstrate the higher velocity of lighter gasses. Judge Matthew Sciarrino has cleared the Manhatten DA (think Jack McCoy on Law & Order) to proceed with prosecution of a ballon seller outside Madison Square Gardens at a Phish concert for "distribution of a noxious substance". Seems the arresting officer observed "unnamed, unarrested persons" inhaling a balloon, I'm guessing doing the same amusing thing my science teacher did 40 years ago. Officer Nosy then busted the vendor. Texans should feel insulted, the field out of Amarillo is America's only natural source of helium. If helium was the most "noxious" substance at a Phish concert the kids of today just ain't trying.

OK, just a few selections from the dream factory. One note, this Sunday WTOS will present a candidates' forum, 3:00 PM at St Paul's church, N MLK, another chance to see who's running May 8. Later this weekend I'll be going through our trash from the truck's point of view.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Soil and Codes

The city council has soil testing on the agenda next Tuesday. They will decide if soil testing will be the policy for all new subdivisions. This is a needed step in the right direction, but still doesn't completely address the failure at 3008 Clearview. There are still a lot of unanswered questions.

First off, we already had a soil test that said this location had expansive soils which means R403.1.8 of the International Residential Code applies. That sends us to section 1805.8 of the International Building Code. When you get over to Section 1805.8 of the International Building Code list four methods to design foundations for expansive soil. The key word here is “ designed” ie there must be design documents showing that the proposed foundation is suitable for the soil. Documents from someone trained to design foundations as in an engineer.

Bottom line is someone in the city government had to approve the plans for the foundation and that foundation was not suitable for the soil and the area. This should have been caught before the building permit was issued. A foundation designed by a professional engineer should have been required. The proposed policy change is a step in the right direction but needs some fine tuning.

We do have to be careful. We don't want to deal with building codes and related issues in a piecemeal manner. The different codes the city has adopted amount to a few thousand pages that are filled with technical and legal jargon and expansive soil is covered in less than 10. There are lots of potential problems where engineers, architects, and other experts should be involved. The city manager said at the last council meeting “there are things we know and things we don't know”, and that's true but that means they need to get better at doing the research, investigations, reviews, and inspections so they know enough to prevent or at least mitigate problems such as these. The policy should be if in doubt, find out. That's just part of protecting our citizens.

One last point needs to be emphasized: just because a home was properly designed and built for expansive soils doesn't mean there won't be issues in the future. My research has shown that buildings on expansive soil require special attention and handling throughout their life. Simple things like improper lawn watering can shorten the life of a foundation and improper installation and use of irrigation systems, swimming pools, gardens, and guttering can lead to major problems with the foundation and eventual building failure. The city needs to make sure that homeowners know if they are living on expansive soil, and they need to make information available on what to do (and not to do) when dealing with expansive soils.

Monday, April 12, 2010

3008 Clearview Part 2

This is the rest of the discussion at last weeks council meeting. You might want to watch the video in the previous post first.

There is additional information here on the Homeowners of Texas site. Bottom line, this home site required special handling because it has expansive soil. This type of soil is very sensitive to moisture content and will swell and shrink as the water content varies. This puts a great deal of stress on a foundation and can lead to early failure. The International Residential Code and International Building code, which our city and the state of Texas have adopted as the baseline building code require special handling for expansive soils. Copies of these codes as adopted by various states can be downloaded here but be warned: these are several hundred pages.

Bottom line, the city can make a case that testing was not specifically required at this site. After all, it had already been done in 2004. They can't get by the fact that these building codes require special handling for foundations in areas of known expansive soil. They dropped the ball and didn't do that.

There is not much we can do for the Montgomeries now but we need to get on top of this because there are many homes in the city that are potentially at risk. Living in a home built on expansive soils requires special care. Simple things like where you plant a garden or how a swimming pool is built or how you water the lawn or use gutters and down spouts all impact expansive soils and the foundation of a home. We need to alert homeowners to the potential problems they face.

3008 Clearview Part 1

At last weeks City Council meeting, there was a long discussion of the problems at 3008 Clearview and what the city. This is a house that didn't last a year from sale to condemnation. The Montgomeries, who had planned on making this their retirement home, have so far lost over $600,000 on this debacle. This is the city staff presentation and ends just before public comment.

The rest of the discussion, starting with the Montgomeries presentation, will be in the next post.