Up From The Onion Fields

An immigrant's startup has a plan to cut pollution in ports

Ruben Garcia came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was three, squeezed into a station wagon with his mother, stepfather, and nine siblings. The family settled in California's Central Valley, where Garcia and his brothers picked onions, carrots, and potatoes after school. Says Garcia, who still can't stand onions: "Once you've worked on a farm like I did, you never want to go back."

Garcia no longer has to break his back in the sun. The company he founded, Advanced Cleanup Technologies Inc. in Rancho Dominguez, Calif., has a lucrative niche cleaning up after industrial accidents. Garcia's business employs 250 people and has doubled in size in the past five years. Last year, Garcia netted $8 million on sales of $40 million.

Now Garcia has invested $8 million in a risky new venture aimed at reducing air pollution from idling ships and trains at ports and railroad terminals. With towns near Long Beach harbor complaining of the rising number of young children with asthma, Garcia says, "It's an ongoing problem, and it's killing people."

Garcia got his start in business right after high school, when he began working at his dad's hazardous waste transport company. Garcia saw that federal regulations passed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill would require specialized workers to clean up after industrial accidents. Borrowing $8,000 from one of his father's customers, he bought a used vacuum truck—a big wet/dry vac on wheels—at a city auction in 1992. Two years later, he won a contract to clean up after an oil pipeline burst in the Northridge earthquake, putting his company on the map.

Although tighter safety regulations have resulted in fewer major industrial accidents, Garcia's company still handles more than 600 projects a year, from dredging sludge from the bottom of a Disneyland lagoon to helping clean up New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Even smaller accidents, such as a spill of just a few gallons of gasoline, can mean sending workers in protective suits into storm drains to pressure-wash pipes. "You find all kinds of things down there," Garcia says. "Shopping carts, dead animals, people." Garcia's wife, Tammy, flies a company helicopter during offshore projects to guide the crews below.


Garcia got interested in air pollution after hearing complaints about air quality at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Ships run their auxiliary diesel engines while they're in port, enabling them to operate cranes and lights but spewing harmful nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulates into the air. Garcia designed a device that captures exhaust in a rigid fabric hood, then cleans it with scrubbers made by other companies. As he was pitching his idea to ports, an environmental regulator from Placer County, Calif., suggested testing it at Union Pacific Corp. (UNP ) railway yard there. It cut emissions by 97%.

The price tag is steep: $8 million for a version that can clean exhaust from several ships at once. The alternative is to rewire ships so they can run on electricity from the mainland grid. That would cost about $1 million per vessel but would require investment by ship operators.

The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are likely to become test cases for Garcia. Those ports are requiring operators to cut emissions by 50% over the next five years, and Robert Kanter, chief environmental officer for the Port of Long Beach, says Garcia's device is one of a few serious contenders. Metropolitan Stevedore Co., a terminal operator in Long Beach catering to ships that come to port infrequently, has agreed to buy one of Garcia's scrubbers if it works in a test run this summer. "It solves a lot of problems for vessels that do not call on a regular basis," says Albert J. Garnier, the company's chief operating officer. "I saw it as a little bit of a silver bullet."

This summer will mark another milestone for Garcia, when he becomes a U.S. citizen some 14 years after receiving his green card. Says Garcia: "It'll be one of the happiest days of my life."

By Christopher Palmeri

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