Pea picker

This is a pea picker harvesting sweet peas near Blooming Prairie in 2016.

Q: Highway 14 was closed for some time in the afternoon on July 16 from what I heard was an oil spill. Westbound 14 was closed for hours causing major disruptions to traffic. Traffic was funneled down Third Avenue to Riverfront Drive. My question is, why was this not reported? I see articles weekly of other vehicle incidents being reported but not this one.

A: The reader is correct that The Free Press completely whiffed on this one.

First off, Ask Us Guy would like to say that he was not at fault because he wasn’t working that day. But he can’t say that because he was working that day — sitting at his desk, likely thinking deep thoughts, totally unaware of the mayhem caused by a pea picker spewing vegetable oil all over the westbound lanes of Highway 14 and creating a slippery mess that took several hours to clean up.

Tony DeSantiago, maintenance supervisor for the local district of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the problem was a broken hydraulic hose on a pea picker, which is the harvesting machine for sweet peas grown by some farmers in southern Minnesota. The specialized machines, which move from farm to farm just as the peas reach their peak sweetness, use vegetable oil as their hydraulic fluid.

“The vegetable oil made everything real slippery and vehicles were tracking it everywhere,” DeSantiago said. “That’s why we had to close the road down before somebody spun out.”

Affordable Towing put down Floor-Dry, which is a highly absorbent material used to soak up oil, and broomed it back and forth to grab as much oil as possible, he said: “They did an excellent job in cleaning it up.”

But a MnDOT bridge crew also had to clean the expansion joints on a Highway 14 bridge, and then the area beneath the pea picker had to be cleaned once the machine was gone — which caused more delays.

“That’s part of the reason it took so long,” he said. “We had to wait for it to be repaired and filled back up with vegetable oil, so they could move it. Once they moved it, we got the vegetable oil underneath it cleaned up. Everything was contained, so we had no problems that way.”

The State Patrol and Mankato police assisted MnDOT with traffic control.

Which brings us back to the original question about why the incident wasn’t reported. In other words, what were Free Press reporters and the photographer doing while the busiest highway in the region was reduced to a near-vegetative state?

Well, the photographer was shooting the governor up in Henderson, and three reporters wrote two stories apiece that day. Ask Us Guy wrote just one (but it had many, many words — enough that he should probably be credited with at least three stories). So the staff wasn’t just sitting around picking their peas, but they also didn’t happen to be driving on the highway during the closure, and no one looked at MnDOT social media, where warnings were posted about the problem.

The unfortunate reality is The Free Press sometimes doesn’t notice stuff unless someone tells them — either a government agency sending out a press release or a reader calling or emailing the newsroom when they see something unusual.

Editors might not agree, but reporters believe that it’s inevitable they’ll miss something from time to time. In fact, there’s a Free Press legend that many years ago the newspaper’s publisher was considering adopting a new slogan and solicited ideas from employees. One smart-aleck reporter made a suggestion that the bosses initially liked until they realized that it could be read two different ways — one of them not particularly complimentary: “The Free Press — If It Happens in Mankato, It’s News to Us.”

Q: Being a person that lives outside of Mankato, I would like to know why city employees are NOT required to wear masks starting on July 10 like you have mandated on all of the general public? I was passing the corner by Menards and United Prairie Bank, to see three city employees not wearing masks at about 9:30 a.m. on the 10th of July. I guess the city makes the rules, but city employees do not need to obey the rules.

A: If the municipal workers spotted by the shopper from Waldorf were working on the boulevard or on the street, they would not have been violating the mask ordinance — which mandates face coverings only in indoor public spaces.

“It doesn’t apply, even under state law, outside,” said Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges.

Even if they were together in a city vehicle, it wouldn’t be a violation of the city ordinance if they were maskless.

“However, our policy is that when they drive together, they must be wearing masks,” Hentges said. “From what I’ve observed, they all have been.”

That policy for city employees even requires masks to be worn outside if the workers need to be shoulder to shoulder on a construction project or other task. So the workers at the corner of North Victory Drive and Highway 22 would have been disobeying employee guidelines — but not the ordinance — if they were laboring within 6 feet of each other without masks. The city also asks police officers to don a mask when approaching people.

“Regardless of whether it’s indoors or outdoors, that’s our policy,” Hentges said.

Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, P.O Box 3287, Mankato, MN 56002. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com; put Ask Us in the subject line.

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