Vanishing ink on stamps is latest in series of Postal Service snafus


The parade of problems embarrassing the Postal Service has lengthened.

In the latest incident, the paper used for some of the most popular stamps printed by the government is incompatible with the ink, causing the designs to come off when the stamps are soaked.

But, as a spokesman for the Bureau of Printing and Engraving was quick to note yesterday, the stamps still serve their purpose for mailing.

The Postal Service said also that "an alarmingly high number of Express Mail shipments" had gone undelivered in the last month because address labels fell off.

A special dead-letter office in Indianapolis was at one time handling 20 such pieces a day.

And when a contract printer used a porous paper for a 29-cent stamp honoring the writer William Saroyan, the machine that punches holes between stamps stuck, tearing the stamps so badly that 150 million them had to be destroyed, said Frank Thomas, a spokesman for the Postal Service.

Destruction of the stamps did not cost the Postal Service any money, Mr. Thomas said, and the stamp, which was produced by American Bank Note Co., is due out Wednesday.

Since postal rates rose Feb. 3, the Postal Service has been embarrassed by several incidents. These include having two stamps printed in Canada and printing incorrect biographical data on the margin of a stamp honoring the late Hubert H. Humphrey, former vice president and senator.

Officials said that the stamp problems have not affected mail delivery.

"You have to give the Postal Service credit," said Wayne Youngblood, U.S. editor for the weekly Linn's Stamp News.

"It's understaffed, and it had to deal with a rate change, and there is enormous pressure from the unions. But the Postal Service does very well with basic mail handling," Mr. Youngblood said.

Ira Polikoff, the spokesman for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, said the ink problem arose when the bureau switched to a water-based ink on its multicolor gravure presses.

The ink, and a special paper used with it, gave the stamps a sharper image, a goal set by the Postal Service to attract more collectors. But, said Mr. Polikoff, "the stamps were

not designed to be soaked for 10 minutes."

While the disappearing ink should not interfere with postal operations, it is crucial for stamp collectors because most collectors soak stamps off envelopes before putting them in albums.

The 29-cent Wood Duck booklet stamp has the worst problem with the disappearing ink, which was first reported by Linn's Stamp News.

Only the bureau's version of the stamp is affected, not the one printed by KCS, a subsidiary of Banta Corp., which prints stamps under contract.

The problem with Express Mail shipments was caused by inadequate adhesive on the labels, according to a notice in Postal Bulletin, which is published every two weeks by the Postal Service.

John Henry, a spokesman for the general post office in Indianapolis, the central transfer point for Express Mail, said the number of undeliverable pieces rose almost fourfold in early April, from the usual four or five pieces a day, and the Postal Service was forced to open the temporary dead-letter office.

Indianapolis handles about 115,000 express pieces a day. The sender's money is refunded if a delivery is delayed.

Mr. Henry said he did not know who made the defective labels, nor did Mr. Thomas.

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