Truckers reaching braking point on fuel

Truckers lined up early Wednesday at the pumps at Oil Creek Truck Stop in Mount Pleasant to take advantage of the station's fuel sale. The truck stop had diesel on sale for $4.09 a gallon, 46 cents a gallon cheaper than the national average.

Commuters and vacationers aren't the only motorists reeling from soaring energy prices.

The nation's truckers, having seen the cost of diesel jump more than 50 cents a gallon since mid-April, are watching their profits evaporate because of all-time-high fuel prices.

The huge jump in overhead is forcing independent drivers and large trucking firms alike to leave their rigs parked for days at a time. Owner-operators spend thousands of dollars a week on fuel, while the sky-high prices are now the No. 1 expense of many larger haulers, outpacing payroll.

"There's a lot of obstacles for a truck driver making a living right now," said Bill Campbell of the Port Truckers Association in Charleston.

The nationwide average price of a gallon of diesel is now $4.55, according to AAA. Twelve months ago, diesel was 62 percent cheaper, at an average $2.80 a gallon. Most rigs, except for the latest models, average only 6 1/2 miles a gallon, Campbell said. At that rate, it doesn't take long to burn hundreds of dollars.

At a Mount Pleasant truck stop Wednesday, truckers lined up to buy diesel on sale at $4.09 a gallon, 46 cents a gallon cheaper than the national average and about 30 cents below the Charleston-area average, according to AAA.

As part of its grand opening, Oil Creek Truck Stop near the State Ports Authority's Wando Welch terminal opened for business at 8 a.m. with 8,200 gallons of diesel at the knockdown price.

Trucks lined up at the pumps 30 minutes before opening, said staff accountant Shannon Harvey. Within 43 minutes of the first customer being served, area truckers had pumped 1,300 gallons. That's more than the truck stop usually sells in a full day, Harvey said.

By 2 p.m., the service station had 1,500 gallons left. Fifteen minutes later just 1,000 gallons remained. The pumps were empty by 3 p.m.

"They've been coming all day long, one after the other," Harvey said.

Owner-operator Eric Moore, who hauls cargo containers to and from local port terminals, spent $600 on 146 gallons. He usually spends about $2,000 a week on diesel, he said.

Lines at the pump to buy fuel at a discounted rate of more than $4 a gallon illustrate how prices have spiraled during the last year.

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"We may never see it again, not around here," Moore said of the $4.09-a-gallon price.

The financial squeeze has put the industry's associations into high gear.

Rick Todd, president of the South Carolina Trucking Association in Columbia, said many companies are taking rigs off the road to save money. In many cases the move saves fuel at the expense of jobs.

His group wants the federal government to explore, drill and refine the nation's own resources and rely less on overseas producers. "We're paying the price for inaction over the last 30 years," Todd said. "Fuel is erasing any profit margin."

Such unrest has sparked whispers of strikes and other protests, including around Charleston.

Norita Taylor, media relations representative for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, an industry group based in Grain Valley, Mo., said drivers from coast to coast are reaching the breaking point.

"Sometime, they're parking their trucks and doing another job," she said.