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February 26, 2013 | By Elise Schafer
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To the Rescue: How Salvage Operations can Minimize Commodity Losses

Part II of our emergency preparedness series provides expert tips for recovering assets after disaster strikes

Preparation 101: the Pillars of Safety, part I of this two-part series, focused on how grain and feed facility managers can prevent emergencies by preparing their staffs for a variety of disasters and following three fundamental safety rules: keep written safety policies, conduct frequent training and drills, and maintain a good relationship with first responders.

Part II takes into consideration that some catastrophic events, whether “acts of God (usually weather related)” or pure accidents, are unavoidable. Even structural collapses, grain fires and bin explosions can happen despite taking all possible precautions and necessary housekeeping measures. While part I covered tips for rescuing victims from emergencies, part II focuses on how to rescue your commodity, where to turn to safely handle the removal of burning grain and damaged debris from a facility, and how to aid the operation through access to resources in your own community.  

What is a grain salvager?

Salvage firms are generally hired by the insurance company once a claim is filed to recoup as much commodity value as possible, minimize losses and reduce the costs associated with a catastrophic event.

The operation involves removing commodity from a bin, flat storage structure, rail car, or river or ocean barge, using specialized equipment and techniques that cause minimal damage to the product. The unharmed and least affected grain is returned to the owner to market or process and the rest is cleaned and graded appropriately and sold at a discounted rate.

Houston Grain Trading Inc., of Houston, TX, is a salvage company specializing in managing insurance claims. In addition to extinguishing fires and dealing with salvage and debris removal, it also works with adjusters to evaluate the claim, document values, negotiate with the insured as the insurance company’s expert and provide documentation on the progress of the operation for investigation purposes.

Other salvagers specialize in removing commodities from specific vessels, such as Hulcher Services, Inc., headquartered in Denton, TX, which has served the rail industry since 1963 as a transfer and salvage provider for derailed cars. Nearly 15 years ago it began its grain division, providing emergency response and facility recovery services nationwide.

There are safety considerations with every salvage job due to the inherent dangers of fire, bin entry, grain dust and hazardous chemicals, so it is essential for the salvager to discuss all potential hazards at the facility with the manager before assembling on location.

Have hazards handy

Jon Kumlin, senior division manager of transfer for Hulcher Services, Inc., says the first phone call is crucial to help the salvager devise a recovery strategy and determine what safety and rescue equipment will be required for the job.

“In our first discussion, we determine the extent of the emergency whether it’s a bin explosion, structural collapse, fire or derailment,” says Kumlin. “Then we go through an extensive list of hazards, including dust issues, confined spaces and the condition of the grain. We need to know if anything is bridged in the bin that would require additional processes to make it a safer environment to enter.”

According to Mike Elder, executive vice president - environmental health and safety, of Cottage Grove, WI-based Landmark Services Cooperative, it’s important to have the facility’s safety hazards list accessible and easy to understand. Elder helped oversee two salvage operations following fires at Landmark grain facilities in 2008 and 2011. He referred to the coop’s established safety plans when explaining the hazards of each facility to Houston Grain Trading, Inc.’s president Don Jones.

“At one facility we had a number of items that would be deemed hazardous in our safety plan, such as anhydrous ammonia storage, propane storage, and other agricultural chemicals,” says Elder. “Although these chemicals weren’t housed next to the grain storage, they need to be noted when developing plans for dealing with fire.”

Once the hazards are identified, the salvage and recovery crew can arrive on site with the correct equipment and supplies for the job, to meet the first responders and start the initial steps toward disaster recovery.

Fighting fire

A grain bin fire presents perhaps the most life-threatening emergency a company can face and complicating the situation further, traditional fire extinguishing methods are not recommended. Likening a salvage operation to a game of chess, Houston Grain Trading’s Jones warns that the worst first move one can make is to hose water into the top of a tank.

“Adding water to a grain bin on fire can create a steam explosion, taking the lives of firefighters and anyone on site,” says Jones, adding “I’ve seen it happen.”

From the commodity salvage perspective, excessive moisture damages grain and can make it difficult, if not impossible, to market should the USDA or FDA “red tag” the commodity, which severely restricts how it can be used or even forces it to be dumped.

Jones generally takes charge of the firefighting efforts to help ensure the tank doesn’t collapse and the commodity isn’t further damaged in the process. Instead of water, Jones says the safest and most effective way to simultaneously put out a grain fire and salvage the commodity is to remove it from the bin with front end loaders, separate the charred grain from the salvageable grain with his company’s rough screen, and then load it onto hopper bottom trucks to be dispersed into piles according to quality. 

Hulcher Services Inc.’s Kumlin says he always has a local fire department on standby for spraying water only onto flames while the commodity is being removed. He recommends frequently inviting the local department to tour your facility so they can respond better to a fire or any emergency situation.

As mentioned in part I, the value of a good relationship with first responders is immeasurable during an emergency, but as Landmark Coop’s Elder discovered firsthand, other relationships can prove equally as important for locating the resources to handle your commodity salvage operation. Sometimes the key to an effective recovery is as much “who” you know as “what” you know.

Equipment sourcing

Elder describes the location of its Cottage Grove headquarters — where it experienced a tunnel fire beneath a 500,000-bushel corn bin in December 2011— as lucky.

“We had to make a hole in the bin over an area of ground that wasn’t very solid, but it needed to withstand the weight of an end loader repeatedly driving over it to remove the grain,” he recalls. “We’re fortunate to have a couple major contractors in our area, so they came in and built a temporary gravel road in a day or so.”

Landmark’s good fortune didn’t end there either. The fire department sprayed a large volume of water into the tunnel and needed a way to remove it, so they turned to a neighbor situated minutes away from the coop.

“Kitty corner from us is the sewage pumping company, so they came over to pump the water out and safely disposed of it for us,” says Elder.

The moral of his story: take a survey of the businesses in your vicinity and establish relationships with them to take advantage of the equipment and services you may need access to during an emergency.

No company wants to experience an unavoidable catastrophe, but understanding how a safe salvage operation can minimize commodity damage may provide some reassurance. Time is of the essence when disaster strikes, so it is crucial to have all safety hazards readily listed for the salvage company. Then let the salvager work directly with the fire department or first responders to minimize the commodity damage that could be caused through traditional means of emergency response. Finally, having stock of the local resources in your community can help secure the equipment necessary to safely and efficiently complete the operation. 

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