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Vol. 15, No. 32 Week of August 08, 2010
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

AK-WA Connection 2010: Emerald offers new take on going green

Alaska environmental management firm provides increasingly diverse range of services for public and private sector customers

Rose Ragsdale

Alaska-Washington Connection

Businesses and government agencies, operating in today’s tough economy, are looking to Emerald Alaska Inc. for a range of increasingly vital environmental services.

Emerald Alaska is the local arm of Seattle-based Emerald Services, a leader in environmental services in the Pacific Northwest. With 400 employees and roots in waste management dating back to 1938, Emerald companies in Washington, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Alaska are owned by the Banchero family.

But Emerald Alaska has a dual family heritage. Entrepreneur Blake Hillis launched Energy Recovery Services in Anchorage in 1993, and eight years later formed Emerald Alaska Inc.

“Emerald Alaska is a built-from-scratch business. It has grown from one man and one truck to over 100 employees in Alaska,” said Paul Nielsen, the firm’s sales manager. “We pride ourselves on being an Alaska family-owned business within a larger regional family.”

Not your average waste company

Emerald Alaska provides full-service liquids recycling and waste management systems that include onsite evaluation, packaging and fully monitored treatment and disposal operations for industrial, marine, automotive, government and military operations.

Emerald Alaska specializes in processing, recycling and disposing of nonhazardous and hazardous organic liquids and petroleum wastes, keeping this material out of Alaska landfills.

Emerald’s mission is to develop renewable and sustainable initiatives through the reuse of products derived from its operations. But unlike a traditional waste disposal service, the Alaska business focuses on materials that present major problems in disposal and develops solutions for dealing with them.

“We help industry comply with changing regulations that affect their ability to do business,” Nielsen said. “Refiners and oil and mining companies tend to be under increased regulatory scrutiny for water and air emissions. Obtaining expanded permits and permits to operate are problems for any resource development company in Alaska. We offer solutions to the problems.”

Over the years, the company honed this ability to such an extent that customers today rely on its expertise.

“They literally thank us for solving problems, so they can concentrate on doing their jobs and allow us to do what we do best,” Nielsen said.

Public and private sector customers

At last count, Emerald Alaska had more than 250 customers throughout the state, primarily in railbelt communities and reflecting double-digit annual growth for the past five years. The firm also is responding to “a landslide of opportunities,” Nielsen said in a June interview.

Emerald’s public-sector clients include state agencies and military installations.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, for example, sought Emerald’s expertise in 2009 to provide environmental spill response and clean-up services after flooding of the Yukon River.

Disposal of household hazardous waste is another specialty. Emerald manages the entire household hazardous waste program for the Municipality of Anchorage as well as transporting and disposing of similar materials for the Fairbanks-North Star and Matanuska-Susitna boroughs.

Emerald also provides hazardous waste transportation and disposal services for utility companies throughout Alaska, including Municipal Light and Power and Chugach Electric Association in Anchorage, Homer Electric Association and Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks.

While the majority of Emerald’s work serves businesses and governments in population centers, the company also offers some services in bush locations, including remote logistics.

“Some of our largest projects for the military have been at remote locations in Alaska, and most often, they involve remediation of former military sites and abandoned locations in rural areas,” Nielsen said.

Emerald Alaska neither owns nor operates landfills or incinerators in Alaska. So where does all the hazardous waste go that the company collects?

Once it’s packaged according to U.S. Department of Transportation specifications, most of the material is shipped out of state, primarily by barge or steamship, to Seattle or Tacoma, Wash., Nielsen said.

In fact, marine transportation carriers in the Alaska-Washington trade is one of Emerald’s largest vendor groups.

The hazardous waste is mainly shipped to Emerald’s treatment, storage, recycling and disposal facility in Tacoma. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently renewed the Tacoma plant’s operating permit and authorized an expansion of the types of hazardous materials that the facility is allowed to handle, Nielsen said.

Nonhazardous waste materials are shipped to EPA-permitted facilities in Anchorage or the Pacific Northwest.

“On an annual basis, we send literally thousands of tons of material out of Alaska to permitted facilities in the Lower 48,” Nielsen said.

The company’s single biggest claim to fame is its novel approach to recycling petroleum products. Using efficient, modern facilities in Alaska, Seattle and Tacoma, Emerald treats and recycles petroleum products, wastewater and other nonhazardous petroleum waste. The entire company annually recycles more than 15 million gallons of used oil, solvent and antifreeze.

The petroleum waste is converted into a fuel for industrial burners and boilers, including batch plants used by the paving industry.

Many people mistakenly assume the recycled fuel goes into the paving material, but Nielsen said it actually heats the plants that make the material for asphalt.

Growing and popular services

From its main office in Palmer, Emerald Alaska serves clients in the Mat-Su area and statewide. The company operates two Anchorage locations – a permitted treatment plant for recycling petroleum products and a commercial business office, which provides industrial cleaning, antifreeze, solvents, parts washers, and cleaning solution sales and distribution services statewide.

The Anchorage treatment plant at 2020 Viking Dr. in Anchorage recently expanded to increase the efficiency of its petroleum recycling and waste handling services.

“We did that by adding 6,000 square feet of floor space, and allowing more interior space for servicing tank trucks indoors out of the weather year-round,” Nielsen said. “This has greatly increased our efficiency. It’s like every man’s dream, to make the garage bigger. Now we don’t have to work outside. This also has a great impact on the safety of our employees.”

Emerald’s facilities are operated under an environmental management system based on ISO 14001 that ensures safe and environmentally responsible handling of all materials throughout processing.

“Safety is one of the highest priorities we work under,” said Nielsen. “We recently celebrated one year of being accident-free. One of the first things our customers look for in a contractor is its safety record. We’re proud to say we work very hard at maintaining a stellar safety record.”

Regional needs spur expansion

In Kenai, Emerald also is expanding, primarily to meet the needs of the petroleum industry in Cook Inlet. The company is building a new 12,000-square-foot location on a previously undeveloped 30-acre site in North Kenai. It currently rents a small shop on a two-acre lot off Kalifornsky Beach Road.

“The type of business that we’re in is in great demand and will continue to be for the next several years as facilities in Cook Inlet age and/or shut down,” Nielsen said.

For example, Emerald provides significantly more industrial cleaning, decontamination, waste collection, transportation and disposal services in the Cook Inlet area.

In Fairbanks, the firm recently purchased a new 12,000-square-foot building on three to four acres at 1315 Queens Way in south Fairbanks. A federal government hazardous waste disposal contract serving all of Alaska’s military bases helped spur this expansion. Emerald originally won the DLA contract in 2000, and recently was re-awarded the work for another five years.

The Fairbanks location also is actively expanding its industrial cleaning service line, primarily to provide more support to oil refineries in North Pole.

Emerald’s largest recent capital investment in Alaska, on the order of millions of dollars, is in new industrial cleaning equipment.

“We recently added six new high-capacity liquid vacuum trucks, and we’ve also acquired an additional high-capacity hydro-excavator, used for the removal of solid material, especially in sensitive areas near power lines, fiber optics and petroleum and gas lines. It literally sucks the earth from around buried distribution lines,” Nielsen said.

The equipment is customized for use in Alaska’s harsh winter conditions and is particularly useful in spill cleanups and site remediation projects.

Tackling tough jobs and winning

The sheer breadth of services that Emerald provides also is helping the firm play an increasingly crucial role in meeting customer needs.

Emerald has become especially proficient in performing tough cleaning jobs for clients in the oil industry.

Nielsen recalled a particularly tough challenge when one Alaska refinery ran into difficulty cleaning out a key part of it operation – a pipe that ran for more than a quarter mile. Emerald proposed a way to clean out the pipe that included devising a visual inspection system for the entire pipeline using a digital recording of the entire length of the pipe’s interior.

“It allowed proper decisions to be made and enabled us to provide the right personnel and equipment to clean out the pipe, without endangering our people or the refinery’s personnel,” he recalled.

The company is getting a reputation for taking on tough jobs.

“During the turnaround, they’ve done a good job for us,” said Carl Horst, senior purchaser at Flint Hills Resources’ North Pole Refinery. “They strive for high degree of execution in the field. For us as a refinery, we are very concerned about working without fluids or contamination hitting the ground. They seem to understand that, and they’ve been invited back to do more work.”

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