A Clean, Green Machine

Times Staff Writer

A small California company that makes sure businesses don’t cry over their spilled milk -- or whatever mess might need cleaning up -- is trying to make some green from going green.

In a typical week, Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc. fields about 30 calls for emergency spill cleanup -- soaking up a flood of milk from a delivery tanker before it can clog the gills of fish living in a nearby stream, for example. The Rancho Dominguez company took part in the 2005 cleanup of an oil pipeline spill in the Pyramid Lake area.

The 14-year-old business also wants to clean the air, armed with a smokestack scrubber that reduces emissions from locomotives and cargo ships.

The pollution control device, which is still being tested, makes an airtight seal over a vehicle’s or vessel’s emission stack. The pollutants are channeled through a scrubber and a converter, leaving behind water vapor and a thick black paste.


The apparatus is generating a lot of excitement in places where the air has long been fouled by idling trains and ships.

“This could be a major breakthrough in our efforts to improve air quality,” said Richard D. Steinke, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, the nation’s second-largest port.

After a recently completed test at Union Pacific’s Roseville, Calif., rail yard, the cleanup equipment will be deployed at Metropolitan Stevedore Co.'s cargo terminal at the port.

“This technology makes sense,” said Rob Waterman, assistant vice president of bulk operations at Metropolitan. “One way or another, the pollution has to be controlled, and this looked like a good opportunity to get out in front on it.”

Getting out in front has been a motto of Advanced Cleanup Technologies President Ruben Garcia, but usually he’s talking about something that has leaked, spilled or exploded out of a pipe, truck or ship.

In 2004, Garcia became interested in developing a line of business to address increasing concerns about port pollution. An unexpected surge in international trade that year caused a huge traffic jam of cargo ships and trains, and port neighbors were complaining about the increase in emissions from the idling engines.

“Emissions control was something coming down the pipeline and we wanted to be involved,” said Garcia, who grew up in the hazardous-spill business under the tutelage of his father, Armando, who ran a company called A.M. Environmental.

After his father sold the business in 1991, Garcia saw an opening for the kind of trained emergency response mainly performed by fire departments. His company has about $39 million in annual sales, about 250 employees and additional offices in California in San Diego, Bakersfield, Oxnard, Benicia and Colton.


To deal with disasters, the company maintains a fleet of boats, a jet, a helicopter and custom-made trucks, some of which were fashioned out of beer delivery trucks with sliding panels on either side.

“No one builds hazmat trucks, so we designed our own. These are perfect because we have compartments for all of the equipment we need,” Garcia said.

Not all of it has been smooth sailing.

In 2004, the company agreed to pay $33,361 in a settlement with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for holding waste at a Rancho Dominguez transfer facility longer than the 10 days allowed by law. It did not admit wrongdoing.


In 2005, the company worked in Louisiana after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast. Garcia said the company provided drinking water, ready-to-eat meals, rubber boats, respirators and hazmat suits as well as training several hundred local residents to assist in the cleanup. To date, Garcia says his company has been paid just $1.8 million of $27 million owed, mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It’s been a mess,” Garcia said.

To venture into the realm of emission control, the company hired engineers to develop a pollution-cleanup device after it was unable to find what it wanted on the market.

Three firms provided components for the device. Tri-Mer Corp. of Owosso, Mich., made the scrubber, the first stop for the emissions-heavy exhaust. The second stop, an emissions-cleaning catalytic converter, came from Argillon Corp. in Alpharetta, Ga. S.A. Robotics of Loveland, Colo., designed the robotic boom and a bonnet-like device that fits over the exhaust pipe.

As originally designed, the machine sits on a barge next to a ship, and the boom raises and lowers the exhaust-collecting bonnet, said Matt Stewart, chief engineer and executive vice president of Advanced Cleanup Technologies.


When Roseville, Calif., officials asked whether the device could be configured to work with locomotives, another version was designed. The bonnet was built into an elevated trolley that could move along with a locomotive as it entered a maintenance facility for servicing.

The system greatly reduces pollutants, removing 95% of the nitrogen oxide, more than 90% of the particulate matter and 99% of the sulfur oxide emissions, Stewart said.

But the device must reduce emissions without slowing the normal routine of loading or unloading a ship or servicing a locomotive.

“Yes, it seems to work as advertised, but it has to integrate functionally,” said Tom Christofk, Placer County air pollution control officer. “If it is slowing down the line and ... locomotives are sitting in people’s backyards idling, that’s not good.”


The device could be a practical pollution-fighting option for ships that haven’t been retrofitted to plug into the port’s electrical grid when they are idling at dock, Metropolitan Stevedore’s Waterman said.

Said Heather Tomley, an environmental specialist with the Port of Long Beach, “If it works out, we want to try it with several other terminals.”

Which leads to the last and perhaps most frustrating phase of a radical new business plan: the waiting.

“It’s frustrating because you are spending money all the time and no money is coming in,” Stewart said.


“But everything is moving incredibly fast. Normally it takes longer,” he said. “This has people excited. It’s cleaning up the air. If you are an environmentalist, you’re going to want this.”