Mobile equipment helps Midwest Soil Remediation treat contaminated soil at industrial sites throughout the U.S.
June 2014 Cover Story for "Gas, Oil, and Mining Contractor Magazine"
To the unfamiliar eye, the phrase “soil cleanup” might at first glance seem an oxymoron. After all, soil is supposed to be dirty.
And yet, soil cleanup and remediation is a $7 billion industry that grows by approximately 6 percent each year. These companies do the dirty work of cleaning up the toxic substances left behind by generations of industrial activity.
One of those soil-cleanup firms is Midwest Soil Remediation Services of Ingleside, Illinois. Since its founding in 1991, Midwest Soil has successfully remedied 1 million tons of soil at more than 125 toxic waste sites. The company uses a process known as ex situ thermal treatment — “ex situ” meaning the soil is excavated for treatment.
“Depending on the concentration of toxins in the soil, we can treat anywhere from 8 tons of soil per hour up to 25 tons per hour,” says Mike Fetherling, the company’s vice president of operations. “Ours is a relatively new technology and we operate in a relatively small, tight-knit industry that a lot of people don’t even know about.”
Soil remediation first came into its own with the Superfund bill of 1980, which covered hundreds of toxic waste sites throughout the U.S. The two most well-publicized disasters were Love Canal in New York and Times Beach in Missouri. With the stroke of a pen, the U.S. Congress dedicated billions to remedying those and other sites throughout the country. The Superfund work continues to this day.
Today, companies are more environmentally responsible and better aware of the need to guard against accidental spills than they were in the past. They’re also well informed on what to do when accidents do occur. In such situations, most companies are quick to contain accidental spills of
Still, spills do happen. Companies and municipalities must also continue to deal with toxins that were dumped as many as 100 years ago. Through relationships formed over the past two decades with environmental officials and consulting firms, Midwest Soil Remediation stays busy making these sites pure and pristine.
After Superfund’s creation, it was only a matter of time before companies sprang up offering different types of soil remediation services tailored to the location of toxins, the type of soil and the proximity of water sources.
Midwest Soil pioneered a technology known as thermal desorption to successfully treat contaminated soil. As the name denotes, the technology utilizes heat. In the desorption process, organic compounds are extracted from the soil. A secondary process is then used to neutralize or destroy them.
Other remediation companies utilize either chemical-based processes or biological methods to treat soil. The advantage of thermal desorption is its ability to achieve dramatic results — soil that is within a tiny fraction of 100 percent pure — within a relatively short period of time.
There is also a significant cost advantage in on-site soil remediation. The client saves money that would have otherwise been spent on hauling massive loads of dirt somewhere else for cleansing or replacement. In addition, the process is by nature less time consuming than most in-situ soil treatments, a process through which the soil is not removed.
The company was started by Fetherling’s uncle, Dean Fetherling, in 1991, and was one of the first to enter into the thermal marketplace. “By and large, most soil-remediation service companies don’t have the same capabilities that we offer,” Fetherling says.
GOOD WORKERS, GREAT TRAINING
“We’re in a small industry where everyone knows one another,” says Fetherling. In fact, with the exception of about five permanent office staff, virtually all of Midwest Soil’s technicians are contract employees. They go from project to project and company to company as job requirements dictate, much the same as oilfield workers do in locations such as western North Dakota or aerospace engineers do in Southern California.
“This is a small, specialized industry and virtually nobody ever walks in here and says ‘I want to be a soil remediation technician,’” says Fetherling. Instead, people are often referred to Fetherling by other companies or by existing employees.
These were all characteristics and skills that described Mike Fetherling at age 21, when his uncle Dean invited him to join his new company — and he accepted. “When a new hire is brought on board, he’ll be assigned to a well-seasoned employee for on-site training,” Fetherling says. “Our formal training focuses heavily on safety.”
The training covers health and safety rules and regulations, handling potentially dangerous substances, machine-specific heavy equipment training and the types of safety equipment required by different levels of jobs. At some job sites, a Level B full body suit with supplied air is necessary equipment. But not at all sites.
Two important elements of training are OSHA’s 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) course and the OSHA 10-hour General Industry Training Program. In addition, the training outlines the company’s safety procedures and emphasizes the proper way to communicate with other employees. Lessons in first aid and CPR, working in confined spaces and hazard communication are also training priorities.
All of Midwest Soil’s equipment is designed to be portable — although “portability” in this case is a rather expansive concept. Thermal desorption equipment can be huge, and quite often multiple tractor-trailer trips are needed to haul it to the client’s site. Fetherling points out that Midwest Soil does not own any of its trucks; they are all leased.
Three thermal desorption systems factor heavily in Midwest Soil’s cleanup projects. Equipment is designed to be matched to the volume required and the type of desorption (whether direct or indirect fired).
The 525d Direct Fired Thermal Desorption System can process a maximum of 25 tons of soil per hour. As the term “direct fired” denotes, it operates by means of a flame at one end that heats the soil to extract contaminants. This particular system is tailor-made for sites containing petroleum or petrochemicals. An auxiliary scrubber works in tandem with the desorption system for projects involving chemicals such as pesticides.
The 420d Direct Fired Thermal Desorption System has a bigger footprint (75 by 45 feet, versus 60 by 30 feet) than the 525d, and processes a maximum of 15 tons per hour. This system is geared toward sites contaminated with chlorinated solvents.
The 432i Solvent Extraction System is an indirect-fired system that utilizes steam for soil cleanup. Of the three systems it is the quickest to set up and disassemble and usually requires a less arduous state and local permit process. It processes a maximum of 16 cubic yards per hour and is targeted at sites containing hazardous chlorinated solvents.
In most cleanup jobs, the company will remain on site for several weeks to months. “It’s difficult to pinpoint an average length of time because all cleanup sites are quite different,” Fetherling says.
Two variables that affect the speed of cleanups are soil type and the presence of shallow groundwater. Soils in which dense, wet clays predominate can be slower to work through and remediate.
In addition to desorption systems, other equipment in Midwest Soil’s fleet includes tracked excavators, wheel and tracked loaders, screening equipment, compactors, generators, pumps and water treatment equipment. Any of these pieces of equipment can be brought to a site, depending on the nature of the cleanup.
A GROWING TRACK RECORD
“The most challenging job our firm has faced over the years was the cleanup of the William Dick Lagoons in Chester County, Pennsylvania,” Fetherling says. This was a designated Superfund site where a former trucking company had used a depot to clean liquid-asphalt trucks. High amounts of chlorinated solvents were used in the cleaning process.
This left behind a gooey mass of both tar and toxic levels of chlorine, which helped put the site on the Superfund list. Midwest Soil Remediation kept at this messy job for slightly more than three months. “This certainly wasn’t our biggest site, but because of the combination of these substances, the cleanup was quite difficult,” Fetherling says.
One of its longest-duration projects was the cleanup of the Warren County Landfill in northeastern North Carolina, a large Superfund site. The landfill was, in fact, created to house PCBs that once lined roadsides in North Carolina. The toxic roadside materials were painstakingly removed and trucked to the Warren County Landfill for storage. Public pressure prompted the remediation of this soil.
For a 13-month period, Midwest Soil Remediation operated a toxic cleanup operation at the landfill. Thanks to a state training grant, approximately half of the people who staffed the facility were hired locally.
Midwest’s ability to do its work on site is quite often a key advantage in securing a job. This was a big advantage on a series of jobs in the Piceance Basin region near Rifle in western Colorado. The highly active oil and gas producing region is extremely mountainous with limited road access.
Soils in the area had become contaminated by drill cuttings and residues from oil and gas drilling processes, and would have been enormously expensive to haul to a different location for remediation. In some cases, the areas requiring soil remediation were extremely high in elevation, which exacerbated this issue. Midwest Soil was able to perform its cleanups on site, with no soil removal required.
Most of Midwest Soil Remediation’s work focuses on sites that have either been operational for several decades or have been abandoned and are now being repurposed.
Similarly, Fetherling doesn’t anticipate the proposed Keystone Pipeline to have much of an impact on his company’s work. “The way oil and gas are being drilled today eliminates a lot of the potential for environmental issues,” says Fetherling. “My hat is off to those guys — we all have to live on this planet, and they are doing a great job at protecting the environment. In the meantime, there are plenty of legacy sites to keep us busy.”
Many such jobs are as near as the corner store. The U.S. is dotted with hundreds of thousands of gasoline stations, many of which have aging, underground storage tanks. As they get replaced with newer, rustproof tanks, many sites require remediation — and Fetherling’s company stands ready to serve.
What’s the key to staying successful? A steady pipeline of new business certainly helps. New jobs come in through a network of environmental consultants, attorneys, business people and others who are familiar with Midwest’s cleanup processes, and more importantly, know its reputation for excellence and dependability.
“Our business model is very simple,” Fetherling says. “When we contract a job, we guarantee 100 percent performance and completion on schedule. In the 24 years we’ve been in business, we’ve always been able to achieve that. For any business, that kind of reputation is a great thing to have.”