Briefing

Travel Trinkets

As the holiday travel season approaches, the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection bureau is making a list and checking it twice for contraband coming into U.S. ports of entry.

"We're coming into the holidays, and we're doing focused operations targeting specific flights, looking for specific food products," says CBP spokesman Stephen Sapp. Diseases have harmed agriculture in many parts of the world, he adds.

CBP officers have just about seen it all-bird heads, charred monkeys, cat skins, giant African snails, endangered sea turtle eggs, jugs of dead scorpions, even 14 live birds from Vietnam, stashed inside an airline passenger's pant legs.

"We've had people come in from Africa with bird heads concealed inside soap," possibly for a voodoo ceremony, Sapp says. And why giant African snails? Folks sometimes boil them and drink the broth, which is believed to have healing properties, he adds.

So, if you're thinking about stowing that special souvenir "know before you go," says the message on CBP.gov, which lists in its travel section what you should leave behind.

On a typical day in fiscal 2009 Customs and Border Protection processed 989,689 passengers and pedestrians at U.S. ports of entry. CBP officers seized 6,643 pounds of narcotics; $300,582 in illicit or undeclared currency; 4,291 prohibited plant, meat and animal by-products; and 454 agricultural pests.

-Susan Fourney

Sustaining Sustainability

Thanks to President Obama's requirement that all government agencies publish strategic sustainability performance plans, we now have a clearer picture of how agencies are meeting ambitious targets to cut energy consumption and pollution.

Many of the steps feds are taking are no-brainers, like turning off lights and computers at the end of the workday, or setting printers to use both sides of a piece of paper. They're also pursuing a lot of high-tech solutions to reduce energy consumption. The Air Force and the Navy, for example, are aggressively testing renewable jet fuels developed from plant oil to power combat aircraft. Not to be outdone in the category of environmentally friendlier weapons, the Army is developing a hybrid combat vehicle.

Like many agencies, the Veterans Affairs Department is pursuing more solar projects. One that caught our eye is a carport mounted with a 2.9-megawatt solar electric system for the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System in Tucson. Angiolo Laviziano, chief executive officer of REC Solar, the company building the project, says such carports, sometimes called solar ports, are increasingly popular because they have dual benefits-they produce electricity and provide shade. VA's is the largest solar port in the United States, he said.

"I actually believe that in the next three to four years we will see a concurrence where we will have solar carports coming as a package with electric car-charging stations," Laviziano says. If that's the case, then feds soon could gain a new employee benefit-electric car recharging.

-Katherine McIntire Peters

Paying a Premium

Sticker shock hit federal workers when the Office of Personnel Management in October announced a 7.2 percent increase in the average employee's contribution to health insurance-a pattern officials have attributed to rising health care costs, an aging workforce and new benefits.

The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program in 2010 increased coverage for out-of-network mental health care, and participants in 2011 will see tobacco cessation programs, no-cost preventive screenings and extended coverage for dependents until age 26.

Emily Long

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