TO SOME, a disaster is viewed as much as an opportunity as a tragedy. Managers at Alaska West Express take this approach.

Proof can be seen in the way they reacted to an early morning fire in January 1998 that totally destroyed the tank truck carrier's Fairbanks, Alaska, wash rack and gutted the maintenance shop. Little remained beyond smoldering rubble, twisted metal, and burned out vehicles.

Not a trace of the fire damage is evident today. The wash rack and shop were replaced with expanded facilities, and Alaska West Express used the opportunity to increase capabilities, particularly in the tank cleaning operation. The expansion positions the tank truck carrier to reap significant benefits in coming years as demand for chemicals grows in Alaska.

“This fire was a serious setback for us, but we saw a chance to make some key improvements in our tank cleaning and maintenance operations,” says Dave Johnson, Fairbanks terminal manager. “In the tank cleaning area in particular, we had reached a point where changes were needed. We had been getting requests to clean rail tankcars, in addition to tank containers and tank trailers. We needed more room and more capacity.

“The need for tank cleaning has grown with demand for chemicals used in oil production, particularly on the North Slope. Our business was steady over the past couple of years, and we think the activity level should continue through 2002. There has been quite a bit of oil exploration work on the North Slope. Demand for crude oil is the driving factor.”

Original Rack

Prior to the fire, the wash rack occupied a single bay at the end of the metal maintenance building. Stacked next to the cleaning bay were two 40-ft containers that housed a vat-style wash system assembled by Tank Cleaning Consultants and a wastewater treatment system.

The fire seems to have started in a microwave oven in the break room. By the time the blaze was discovered around 1 am, the building was thoroughly enveloped. Tires and other flammable materials present in the shop and wash rack fed the fire.

“The terminal was closed at that time of night, and no employees were present,” Johnson says. “A security guard driving by the terminal spotted the fire and reported it to us. We're not in a fire district, so our own people had to turn out to fight the fire.

“We were able to save about half of the structure, but the wash rack was totally destroyed. We also lost six vehicles and our entire parts inventory. We brought in an investigator from Seattle (Washington), and he determined that the microwave oven was the probable cause.”

New Plans

Even before the debris was cleared away, managers had begun planning the new shop and wash rack. They decided to rebuild what remained of the original shop, but the wash rack would be a completely new structure. The Fairbanks terminal sits on 30 acres, and there was plenty of room for a new freestanding wash rack.

Less than eight months after the fire, work was underway on new tank cleaning and maintenance facilities for the Fairbanks terminal. The repair shop was operational by January 1999, and the wash rack was up and running by April of that year. Both new facilities are significantly bigger and better than those they replaced.

The rebuilt shop now occupies 13,000 square feet and has six bays. Operated as a commercial facility, the shop provides tractor and trailer maintenance service. It holds an “R” stamp for code repairs to cargo tanks.

The tank cleaning operation moved into a 4,160-sq-ft building and has land available for expansion should that be needed. The two-bay rack primarily serves Alaska West and some of its shipper customers.

“At this time, we're not interested in general tank cleaning for other truck fleets,” Johnson says. “Our focus is on the tanks, especially tank containers, in our fleet and rail tankcars. This is the only facility in Alaska for cleaning tankcars, and we were encouraged to take on that activity by the Alaska Railroad and some of our customers.

“We also provide tote (intermediate bulk container) cleaning at the wash rack. We do that for various chemical companies, including those for which we don't haul. We also provide tote testing and repair.”

Product Capabilities

Two people working a single shift are all that is needed in the Alaska West Express wash rack at this time. Tom Humphrey is the wash rack operator. The facility can handle a relatively wide range of chemical products, with the most difficult being gluter aldehyde. Poisons are the only products not accepted.

The wash rack is housed in a well-insulated metal building that protects against winter temperatures that plunge as low as -60°F in January and February. Lows of -20°F are not uncommon in March. The temperature usually doesn't rise above freezing until April.

The building was constructed on a 10- to 12-ft gravel base. The floor consists of a six-inch concrete slab over two inches of foam insulation. Tubes in the floor circulate a glycol solution that is heated to 100°F to 120°F during winter. One bay has rail tracks for the tankcars.

Hemco galvanized scaffolding provides safe and easy access to the tops of tanks being cleaned. Railings that run the length of each bay provide fall protection for workers.

Vat System

Alaska West Express returned to Tank Cleaning Consultants for the new wash system. “We felt that Al Luther and his team had provided a good system for our first wash rack,” Johnson says. “The only difference is that we decided against a containerized system this time. We had plenty of room in the new building.”

The recirculating, skid-mounted, vat-style system was designed with tankcar cleaning in mind. The basic unit consists of four 1,000-gallon vats for prerinse water, detergent, caustic, and final rinse water. A fifth vat was added after the wash rack was operational for tankcar prewash.

“We found we needed a dedicated prewash vat for tankcar cleaning because unlined cars generate a tremendous amount of rust and other debris,” Johnson says. “Chemical cars are lined, but those used for fuels are not, and we'll get 30 to 50 gallons of residue out of a tankcar. There is so much residue in some cars that we have to send a worker inside to shovel it out. It can take at least a day to clean a railcar.”

A dual pump arrangement transfers the cleaning solutions between the vats and the tanks being washed. Gamajet spinners are used for tank containers and tankcars. Sellers spinners are dedicated to the totes.

While the tankcar cleaning process is time-consuming, most tank containers can be finished in slightly more than an hour. “We use the containers to haul a lot of oil-based chemicals, including corrosion and scale inhibitors for pipeline and other applications,” Johnson says.

MSDS Review

When a tank arrives for cleaning, the first task is to review the material safety data sheet for product specifics and hazards. Personal protective equipment requirements are determined from that. Equipment includes chemical-resistant coveralls and slicker suits and Scott full-face respirators.

Humphrey's next step is to open the domelid and check for retained product. Heels are a serious concern at the wash rack because all wastes must be captured and handled on-site. The wash rack has no access to a municipal sewage treatment plant.

“Our objective is less than five gallons of heel per tank,” Humphrey says. “We're very concerned about heels, and we thoroughly drain every tank. We put heels into approved containers, which are labeled and tagged. As much as possible, we try to return the heel to the customer.”

Tanks are visually inspected after cleaning. If product residue remains, Humphrey usually enters the tank to remove it. During the visual inspection, he also checks gaskets for damage.

Wastewater Collection

The wash rack is laid out so virtually every drop of water generated in the cleaning process is captured for treatment and eventual reuse. “Recycling is crucial since we are not on a city sewer,” Johnson says. “We want to minimize disposal requirements as much as possible, because it's expensive.”

Johnson and others at Alaska West Express designed the wastewater treatment plant. The primary equipment was provided by Wastewater Treatment Systems, a division of US Filter. “We spent more on this wastewater treatment system than we did on the wash system,” Johnson says.

The wastewater treatment system is significantly larger in the new cleaning facility. Batch treatment capabilities were expanded from 250 gallons to 1,500 gallons. Equipment includes an activated carbon filtration system for polishing the treated water.

Treatment starts with oil/water separation, followed by chemical adjustment in the US Filter Batchmaster system. Treatment chemicals include ferric chloride, sodium hypochloride, calcium hydroxide, and polymer. Wastewater is filtered through a J-Press filter press that is emptied out about twice a month.

Twenty to 30% of the water is lost to evaporation throughout the cleaning and treatment process. This is replaced with fresh water. “We have to add fresh water or we get a buildup of chlorides in the treated water,” Johnson says.

Hose Testing

Besides tank cleaning, the wash rack also handles testing of product hoses and pressure-relief vents. Hoses are hydrostatically tested at 200 psi at least once a year. Vents are checked on a Fort Vale test stand after being cleaned and reassembled.

The wash rack and repair shop are among the newest additions to the Fairbanks terminal, a bustling facility that serves as a transfer point for a wide variety of liquid and dry bulk cargoes moving between the Lower 48 United States and points throughout central and northern Alaska.

The terminal has an extensive transloading operation that includes 6,000 feet of track, 1,400 feet of which is lined with fiberglass spill pans. Warehousing is available, along with about seven acres of pipe storage. Two 80-ft scales are in place, the newest of which is a Pacific Industrial Scale Co unit that was installed in the fall of 2001.

Methanol is the highest volume chemical handled through the terminal, and it generally arrives by rail tankcar. Among other chemicals are corrosion and scale inhibitors, glycol, and some acids. Dry bulk cargoes consist of cement and frac sand.

Methanol and glycol are hauled to their final destinations on DOT406 tank trailers. Payloads range from 61,000 to 72,000 pounds. Trailer capacity is 9,200 to 10,800 gallons.

Currently, Alaska West Express operates 32 MC306 and DOT406 tank trailers in a fleet consisting of approximately 300 trailers of all types. Also part of the fleet are 40 pneumatic self-loaders for dry bulk and 10 MC307 tanks for chemicals.

The newest units have four axles — a tridem combined with a Watson-Chalin lift axle. Hutchins spring suspensions are specified with two leaves. The trailer rests on a single spring when the tank is empty, providing a softer ride.

The carrier bought 10 new DOT406 tanks and three dry bulkers last year. Most of the tank purchases were replacement equipment, and Johnson says the carrier may buy 10 more DOT406 tanks this year. The pneumatic trailers were for new business, and Johnson sees little likelihood of expansion in that sector.

Tank Containers

Other commodity-type chemicals that arrive by rail are transloaded into tank containers. Some chemicals are even shipped by tank container straight from plants in the Lower 48 United States. Tank container operations are coordinated by Marv Reich from an office in Tacoma, Washington, and Alaska West Express has containers staged in Tacoma and Houston, Texas.

For the carrier, tank containers have become the preferred means of transporting the majority of chemicals between Fairbanks and the Prudhoe Bay oilfield operations. The company now has 54 tank containers of its own, and its container fleet is growing.

“We bought 15 tank containers each year in 2000 and 2001,” Johnson says. “We may do about the same in 2002. Our corporate policy favors owned equipment. Besides, the prices are so good that we can get a new tank container for about $20,000 delivered to Houston.

“Another factor weighing in favor of owning is the cost of off-hiring a leased container. It's expensive. Leasing companies want tank containers returned in like-new condition.

“Cost factors aside, we prefer tank containers because they offer an extra margin of safety. They are much more durable for the run over the Haul Road up to Prudhoe Bay (a 516-mile trek over a dirt and gravel road that is paved with ice and packed snow in the winter). Tank containers can achieve a 50,000-lb payload, not much less than a tank trailer.”

Single-compartment tanks account for all but one of the containers in the Alaska West Express fleet. Johnson says the two-compartment container has proved useful, and the carrier probably will add a couple more.

Consani Inc built the newest tank containers to IMO-1 standard. They are constructed of 316 stainless steel and have 5,363-gallon and 6,300-gallon capacities. Hardware is from Fort Vale.

Tank containers are transported on Reinke chassis with spread tandems. An air-lift system at the rear of the chassis tilts the container for more thorough unloading. Positioning tanks with product outlets to the front contributes to safety in transit.

The Freightliner tractors preferred by the carrier are specified to deliver reliable service under some of the most demanding operating conditions found anywhere in the United States. The fleet consists of 22 company tractors, with another 25 or so provided by owner-operators.

The newest company tractors have 500-horsepower Caterpillar C15 engines, ZF Meritor 10-speed transmissions, and Meritor drive tandems. The three-axle tractors have a 300-inch wheelbase. Other equipment includes a Pro Tech headache rack, Arctic Fox fuel heater, cab auxiliary heater, aluminum disc wheels, and air suspension for the cab and running gear.

Alaska West Express runs its tractors five years or 500,000 miles. Tank trailers operating on the Haul Road begin to show fatigue at about 10 years. Tank container chassis begin to wear out around six to seven years.

Despite the difficulties faced in the operation, Alaska West Express continues to work hard at providing customers with the best possible service. Expanded tank cleaning capabilities are just a part of that effort.