Truckers idled by shutdown are upset Safety allegations against George Transfer unfounded, they say

January 19, 1996|By Jay Apperson and Robert A. Erlandson | Jay Apperson and Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Bill Dunkle was one angry trucker. He wanted to haul some steel, but yesterday he and fellow drivers could do little more than park their rigs at the Dundalk terminal of George Transfer Inc. and fume.

"We're not making any money sitting here," said Mr. Dunkle, one of hundreds of truckers across the country affected by the shutdown of George Transfer for alleged safety violations. "The whole thing was over a handful of guys. Now you've got 500 guys sitting."

On the first full day that nearly all of the Parkton-based George Transfer's operations were shut down, the effects reached from the drivers to huge manufacturers.

Mr. Dunkle and other drivers said federal highway officials' shutdown order was unfounded and was costing them $500 a day. Metal companies from Baltimore to Tennessee scrambled to find replacement drivers to deliver their goods.

Meanwhile, officials at George Transfer huddled in an attempt to find a way to get their trucks back on the road in the wake of the Federal Highway Administration order that made the Baltimore County company the largest trucking company ever shut down over safety violations.

"We have considered ourselves to be one of the more safety-conscious trucking companies and have operated at [an] accident frequency ratio that is significantly better than the industry average," the company said in a brief written statement. "It is our intention to immediately make those changes necessary that will allow the company to be in full compliance with all [highway administration] regulations."

Company President Edward A. Gallagher IV was in meetings throughout the afternoon and was unavailable for comment, his secretary said.

The company, with 40 terminals in 24 states, primarily hauls steel and aluminum.

A company official said George Transfer is experiencing some financial difficulties.

"We're having some problems," said T. Bayard Williams Jr., who was chairman of the board and general counsel until he retired two years ago. Mr. Williams, who remains a company trustee, would not elaborate.

Federal highway officials ordered the company's interstate operations shut down Wednesday, accusing George Transfer of failure to correct unsafe practices.

The company was cited for more than 430 alleged violations of federal regulations, including charges that it required its drivers to falsify logs designed to keep exhausted truckers off the road.

Declaring the company's operations "imminently hazardous," federal officials said a recent investigation found that the company had violated a 1994 agreement to improve its safety practices. The company has been fined more than $430,000, federal officials said.

At the company's Dundalk terminal, Mr. Dunkle and other drivers disputed the allegation that George Transfer had not taken steps to improve safety.

They said the company had conducted meetings and schooled them on the proper way to fill out driving logs. They said a #F computerized system tracks their driving hours.

On a typical day, perhaps 70 trucks pass through the terminal on Beachwood Road, near the Cove Road exit from the Baltimore Beltway. The drivers stop by to pick up their next assignment, which usually means heading to Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point mill for shipments to be used in products ranging from automobile parts to cans for food.

The shutdown will have no major impact on operations at Bethlehem Steel because the work can be shifted to other

trucking companies, said G. Ted Baldwin, a company spokesman.

Another major customer of George Transfer is a division of Alcoa that makes sheet aluminum for use in beverage cans, said Alfred Posti, an Alcoa spokesman. He said the company had been able to find other drivers to haul the loads.

"So far, the shutdown of the company has been a great inconvenience to us but has not caused us to miss any shipments," he said.

The shutdown order surprised David K. Willis, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington. Mr. Willis, a former chief operating officer for the American Trucking Association Foundation, an educational and research organization, said he has known George Transfer's Mr. Gallagher as a "good corporate citizen."

Mr. Gallagher is a past president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association and is treasurer and a member of its executive committee.

The allegations against George Transfer are similar to those that ended with the criminal conviction of the president of another Maryland trucking company, Gunther Leasing Transport Inc., said John D. Steinhoff, regional director of the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Motor Carriers.

Mr. Steinhoff said no criminal action is pending against George Transfer. He said he had talked yesterday to a lawyer from George Transfer and that he hopes the company can come up with a plan that will permit the lifting of the shutdown.

"This company has so much opportunity to be a safe and efficient and excellent operation, and I'm just hopeful that that will occur," Mr. Steinhoff said.

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