Alarm over bugs stalls truckers at port

Hyundai automobiles sit on a transporter in a lot in South Philadelphia on Thursday. Bugs were found on tires of cars that were leaving the port after arriving from South Korea. A federal agency is investigating.
Hyundai automobiles sit on a transporter in a lot in South Philadelphia on Thursday. Bugs were found on tires of cars that were leaving the port after arriving from South Korea. A federal agency is investigating. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 24, 2014

A truck driver, arriving at a lot in South Philadelphia early Thursday to pick up a load of new Hyundai and Kia cars headed for dealer showrooms, spotted tiny red insects - dozens of them - swarming on car tires.

He asked around, and nobody knew what they were, so he telephoned the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Harrisburg.

"They got ahold of somebody, who got ahold of somebody," the driver said. Before long, inspectors from Customs and Border Protection "came out in white suits, took some bugs, and left."

The initial analysis: They are likely domestic mites found around waterfront ports and terminals.

But until the results are conclusive, 50 trucks loaded with factory-new vehicles, freshly shipped to the port here from South Korea, are stuck inside the gate at Oregon Avenue and Columbus Boulevard.

"I've been doing this a long time, and I've never seen bugs like this all over the tires," said the driver, who asked to remain anonymous because some of his fellow drivers were irked at being stalled for hours. "I just thought someone should look at them."

The mites, about the size of a pinhead, are being tested in Linden, N.J.

"We don't know if they were already at the marine terminal and climbed aboard the tires with the moisture around, or if they arrived on the ship," said Stephen Sapp, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in Philadelphia.

"One thing that makes us believe they may have already been at the port is because the vehicles came off at least two different ships and have been at the terminal for several days now," Sapp said. "We submitted the specimens to U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologists for identification. If it's a domestic mite, there's likely no action necessary."

The identification is expected by Friday, or no later than Tuesday because of the three-day holiday weekend, Sapp said.

Longshoremen and mechanics who worked on the last ship to arrive Tuesday with autos saw "no sign whatsoever of any bugs on the ship," said Robert Blackburn, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority senior deputy executive director.

So far this year, 38 ships have delivered 58,213 cars to Philadelphia, the busiest U.S. port handling Hyundai and Kia imports because of available land near the port to prep the cars, near the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Three more ships are expected over the weekend.

Depending on the demand from car dealerships, the autos sit between 24 hours to a month on lots across Columbus Boulevard from the marine terminal.

The trucker who called in the tip said fellow drivers, who by mid-afternoon Thursday had waited for five hours at the gate to leave, were peeved.

"I've got people really mad at me because I'm the one who called the government," he said. "I was loading my cars and another driver said to me, 'Man, look at all these bugs.'

"They were just everywhere. I said, 'I wonder if they came on the boat from Korea and shouldn't be in this country, like gypsy moths.' I'm just concerned for the safety of the country."


lloyd@phillynews.com

215-854-2831

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