Firm readies for oil cleanup

Camas company ramps up production of its pressure washers

By Libby Clark, Columbian Web Editor

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At the Karcher North America plant in Camas on Tuesday, three heavy-duty hot water pressure washers sat on the factory floor waiting to be shipped to Louisiana, where they’ll be used to aid cleanup of the massive Gulf Coast oil spill.

The machines, a specialty product of Karcher’s Landa brand, are part of an initial batch of 30 machines the company built here last week in anticipation of higher demand from its distributors near the Gulf of Mexico. Karcher, whose machines were also used to blast oil from the rocky Alaskan shore after the Exxon Valdez disaster, expects to send some 200 pressure washers to its Louisiana warehouses in the next few weeks, said Bob Christian, vice president of sales and marketing for the Landa brand in Camas.

Up to 19,000 barrels of crude oil per day has been gushing into the gulf since oil giant BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded off the coast in April, according to the most recent government estimates. BP has so far failed to stop the flow, and cleanup efforts are expected to last for many more months after the oil is contained.

Though pressure washers won’t be used to clean the shoreline, comprised mostly of sand and sensitive marshland, every ship or containment boom that comes to shore during and after the cleanup will need to be washed with a high pressure stream — a faster alternative to the only other method, hand washing. The machines will also help blast oil from marinas, docks and any other structures the polluted water touches.

“We clean a good number of vessels that are contaminated by transiting through the oil or contracting to clean the spill,” said Trent Sehlinger, director of BP’s operations division in Homa, La. “Pressure washers will be in demand in decontamination as the job comes to an end as we pull in vessels and booms.”

The ships are sent to special decontamination bays where they’re isolated from open water, Sehlinger said. Then workers can use the pressure washers to blast the oil off the surface of the ships and into the surrounding water. The oil is then collected from the water using vacuum trucks or skimmers.

More hiring possible

The spill hasn’t yet generated many orders at Karcher, Christian said. But as one of the world’s largest cleaning equipment manufacturers, Karcher is building them to prepare for the end of the cleanup effort, when the machines will be most needed.

The increased production will hardly be noticed at Karcher, a privately-owned multinational corporation based in Germany. At an average retail price of $14,000, the units will bring in about $2.8 million for the company.

And the plant, which employs about 250 workers in Camas, won’t add work hours to fill the orders, Christian said. The recession took a toll on the Camas plant, which cut its work weeks last year to four days rather than lay off workers, but business has steadily increased since February and the shifts are back up to six days per week, he said. The company is on pace to add a second assembly shift and hire more workers at the Camas plant if the economy continues its upswing.

The company views the orders as an opportunity to help with the Deepwater cleanup and ensure the contractors involved in the effort don’t suffer an equipment shortage, Christian said.

“They’re just thinking ahead,” said Ernie Quesada, general manager of Clean Rivers Cooperative LLC, a Portland nonprofit that helps clean oil spills in the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Libby Tucker: 360-735-4553 or libby.tucker@columbian.com.