Swan Island's Vigor is emerging player in waste cleanup business
On Nov. 17, a 900-foot-long container ship crashed into a footing of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, spilling 58,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. Now a Portland company is helping clean up the mess, generating profits - and a distinctive odor - in the process.
For the past month, workers at Vigor Industrial, located on Swan Island, have been processing 30,000 gallons of oily scum that was scooped from the bay and transported 636 miles to Portland by rail car, separating oil from water and turning it into fuel.
The work is part of Vigor's growing presence in the dirty-water business. As environmental hazards proliferate, dirty water - from oil slicks like the one in San Francisco to wastewater from local industries - is becoming a bigger business every day.
It certainly became big business in San Francisco last fall.
The Cosco Busan, a fully loaded container ship, was picking its way through a dense fog when it somehow turned sideways and hit the Bay Bridge.
The resulting 100-foot gash in the ship's hull seeped oil for hours before the spill was contained by booms. Later, there were claims of radar failure and, eventually, a federal investigation.
By the time the mess was under control, more than 25 California beaches were closed, 1,851 birds were dead and oil stretched from Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, 50 miles south to Pacifica.
Of the oil that eventually was cleaned out of the bay, some made its way north to Riverbank Oil Transfer, a rail car loading facility that collects waste from California and ships it to Portland.
'Basically, market conditions in California' force some waste north, according to Alan Sprott, vice president and general manager of the Shipyard Commerce Center at Vigor.
'There are essentially two facilities there that process wastewater,' Sprott says. 'One's in the San Francisco Bay area and the other is in Southern California. Because of their pricing scheme, it's more economical to … load it on rail cars and trucks and bring it up here.'
Environmentalists aren't entirely unconcerned about what is becoming a big part of Vigor Industrial's business; Brent Foster of Columbia Riverkeeper is concerned that out-of-state waste that ends up at Vigor, and ultimately in the Columbia River via city sewers, will add to the river's pollution load if the waste stream grows too big.
Still, both Foster and his Willamette Riverkeeper counterpart Travis Williams are encouraged by Vigor's generally clean environmental record and continued emphasis on recycling.
As a sideline to running a ship repair facility, a barge building company and leasing space to about 10 other marine industry tenants, Vigor recycles about a million gallons of oil a year.
The company burns about 20 percent of that to create the thousands of pounds of steam used to power the ships that dock for repairs.
The rest it sells to industry as a low-grade fuel, generally to power boilers, where its price of $1 a gallon rivals natural gas.
At Vigor, the oil is separated from water in huge, open-air vats that look like long cement hot tubs, then plugged into an insulated barrel tank where heat and a chemical stew remove the water, dry the oil and filter any contaminants that linger.
The leftover water is siphoned into a farm of white tanks that filter it before sending it off to city sewers.
That tank farm is, surprisingly, very much in demand.
History's error turns profit
Vigor's tank farm takes wastewater from visiting ships and from local industry. It also treats wash water from Vigor's own boat-repair docks and is one of the few West Coast disposal facilities accessible by road, river and rail.
Small businesses like gas stations save money by sending their waste there. About half of the waste flowing into the tank farm comes from boats, the rest from industry and environmental cleanups like the one in San Francisco Bay.
Two-thirds of the industrial waste is local, most from biodiesel refineries, gas stations, and pulp and paper plants.
The tank farm's lucrative days are fairly new. Built by the Port of Portland in the 1979, it was intended to treat wastewater from fleets of tankers, conceived with an eye toward new oil markets in Alaska, which never flourished.
Today, it processes about 100,000 gallons of wastewater a day and turns between $300,000 and $1 million a year in profit, even after water and sewer bills that are routinely $50,000 a month, sometimes as high as $100,000.
Those bills will get lower with new technology, which soon will divert 20 percent of treated wastewater from sewers to boilers to create steam for docking ships.
Vigor also is gearing up to be a major player in the cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund site. The company is adding technology to sift water from dredged, contaminated soil, which could lower the cost of cleaning pollution for companies that might otherwise be forced to ship wet waste.
'Certainly ship repair is and always will be the core of our business,' says Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for Vigor.
But the dirty-water business is one that, Hill says, complements other Vigor operations up and down the West Coast.
'It's certainly a new way of looking at the assets that we have and getting the most out of them,' she says.
Whiff of controversy
The dirty-water business does have its downside, however. Depending on the day's haul, Vigor's plant is a veritable Pandora's box of dubious toxins, including oil, grease, heavy metals, firefighting foam and volatile organic compounds.
In some cases, as with the heavy metals, Vigor uses an electromagnet to isolate the pollutants. In other cases, the compounds simply are flushed into the sewer system in sufficiently low concentrations that they fall under the city of Portland's legal limits for toxic discharge.
In a typical year, for example, the plant flushes approximately 400 pounds of copper and zinc into the sewer, but usually accompanied by such high volumes of water that the plant has violated the regulatory limit on only a couple of occasions in the last four years.
According to regulatory reports obtained from the city's Bureau of Environmental Services, the plant has violated limits on pollutants eight times since 2002, spilling copper, zinc, oil, grease and an organic compound named pentachlorophenol.
'It's not a bad record,' says BES compliance officer Wes McDaniel.
In fact, the main environmental drawback to the tank farm may be the way it smells.
Ask a shipyard worker whether the plant ever emits an odor, and you are likely to be greeted with a stunned silence, followed by hysterical laughter.
'It stinks,' says boilermaker Barry Stevahn, who has worked at the yard since 1983. 'It's peeling the paint off my car!'
Workers variously describe the smell in terms of rotten eggs, sewer gas, decomposing flesh and bodily functions that cannot be printed in a family newspaper.
'You ever drink a Heidelberg and eat a hard-boiled egg?' asks one welder. 'That's what it smells like.'
On some days, the odor is so overwhelming that neighboring businesses have been driven to distraction.
'We thought it was us!' exclaims one nearby business owner, who asked to remain anonymous, ticking off various adjustments he made to his own plumbing system in an effort to rid his building of the unwelcome aroma.
'It's a foul smell,' says Frank Lesic, facilities manager of nearby business Cummins NW. 'We were dumping buckets of bleach water into our floor drains' in a misguided attempt to cure the odor.
On one afternoon in September 2005, the smell was so intense that a city inspector who happened to be visiting immediately ordered that the plant's sewer discharge be halted.
Hydrogen sulfide levels had reached the point where they posed a hazard to sewer workers, and several neighboring businesses had called the city to complain.
Vigor officials say that the 2005 incident was an anomaly caused by a freak anaerobic reaction inside one of the tanks, and that hydrogen sulfide has not been a problem since.
Sprott acknowledges that the aroma gets out of control 'two or three days a year,' and says Vigor is planning to cap the tanks and burn away the sulphurated gases responsible for the stench.
Back at the shipyard, meanwhile, some workers have grown accustomed to the aroma. 'I don't really care,' one welder says. 'It's the smell of money.'