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Cushing, Oklahoma, Emergency Response rises to the challenge of a major spill

Responding to the spill was a 24-hour a day task

A 4am phone call alerted Lew Shideler, GFL’s industrial branch manager, Liquid/ Industrial ER, to an oil spill near Cushing, Oklahoma. Arriving on site in the dark, he didn’t fully appreciate the challenges he and his Emergency Response (ER) team would face until the sun came up.

Shideler recalls standing on a bridge with the client in the early morning light staring down at a creek which was full of oil.

“It was a couple more hours before we were able to get land access in a few places and we took a walk through the trees once it got light,” Shideler said, “We could not have had better timing. A wall of crude came around the corner, and we were able to throw a boom to stop it, and to this day it’s still the stopping point, the very end of the spill.”

As Shideler assembled his team to respond to the spill, he quickly realized that more people were needed. To complicate matters, the 30-person Cushing team was already working at full capacity on everyday operations at the time.

The number of responders to the spill quickly grew from five to 25 over the next few days. Workers were called in from GFL’s other industrial facilities in Schererville, Indiana, and Frankfort, Illinois.

Shideler called Ryan Fruendt, vice-president of Industrial Services, USA, and Chris Von Rhein, director of operations, who both help lead the US Industrial Liquids group.

“My phone call to Ryan was, ‘I’ve got a humdinger down here,’” Shideler said. “I don’t think Ryan and Chris believed me at first. Ryan said, ‘Alright, I’m on the next plane down there.’”

Fruendt flew in from a job site in Montana to assist in any way he could with budget, financial and acquisition matters.

“I went to a meeting and the client said, ‘Lew’s doing a great job, we want you guys to take this whole thing over. Can you do it within 48 hours?’” Fruendt said. “And I said, ‘Yup, sure can.’ So all of a sudden our 25 people went to 100 people within 48 hours.”

Finding that number of qualified people was not an easy task in such a short period of time, but the team brought in independent subcontractors from Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Indiana whom they knew they could count on to perform well to the GFL standard. One hundred people turned into 175 people who worked either a 12-hour day or night shift, providing coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

To further complicate matters, access to the spill site was difficult and summer daytime temperatures soared to 106F. For the first couple of months on the job, responders could only work 15 minutes out of each hour during times of peak heat from 10 or 11am until 9pm each day.

The responders had to wear fire-retardant Tyvek® suits, PFDs (personal flotation devices) when working in the water and rubber boots, all made of materials that don’t breathe.

When not working, workers kept comfortable in one of a dozen cooling stations on site.

“We went through a pallet of bottled water and 200 20-pound bags of ice in a 24-hour period, day in and day out for probably a solid month,” Shideler said. “That’s a lot of water and a lot of ice! The client reached out to wholesale vendors that bottled their own water to buy it direct to meet the demand.”

“We did whatever we could do to make sure people were taken care of on the job with proactive measures every day,” Fruendt said, “and to this day we haven’t had a safety-related incident or an injury on the site yet.”

The spill flowed two and a half miles along the creek’s many bends and nooks. Shideler estimates that 80 percent of the length of the creek has 15- to 20-foot side banks. The creek is 50 to 80 feet wide in most places with four- to 12-foot-deep pools in the middle.

“Piece by piece, the creek was broken into 20 or 30 operating sectors much like a jigsaw puzzle, and each sector had an assigned role and responsibility to complete to aid in its part of the cleanup,” said David Hill, GFL’s national director of Emergency Response - Health and Safety. “Between Lew and his supervision team and with Ryan’s and Chris’s support, they did an incredible job.”

To provide an idea of the scope of the operation at its peak, the Cushing team had 18 to 20 boats in the water with two or three people in each boat skimming oil, 40 to 50 water pumps, a dozen vacuum trucks and 10 transport trucks hauling frac tanks or recovered product to frac tank city. Frac tank city consisted of 107 - 500-barrel frac tanks.

“Skimmers were utilized to recover most of the product from the creek,” Shideler said. “Being in the backwoods of Oklahoma we would pull this product into frac tanks. The frac tanks staged along the creek would fill up quickly so vac trucks were used to shuttle the product from the creek to frac tank city. Frac tank city is where we stored the product until the client determined what they wanted to do with it.”

To allow work to continue around the clock, light plants were set up that lit the creek area like daylight for the night shift. For safety reasons workers didn’t enter the water at night, but all other activities carried on.

A decontamination unit was responsible for cleaning any items that became saturated with oil, such as booms, PFDs, boats and motors.

The team demonstrated logistical coordination, strong leadership, teamwork, tireless effort and a wholehearted commitment to doing the best for the client to make the operation a success.

“Stepping up to the plate and trying to be part of the solution is, I think, what makes us such a strong team and what made this work,” Fruendt said.

About 30 people were working the day shift until mid-October. The team is now down to five people in maintenance mode while the client works through upcoming plans for the site.

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