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Cleaning up the world one day at a time

When an oil pipeline crossing North Dakota was struck by lightning and ruptured in late 2013, leaking tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil onto a farmer’s field, Nelson Environmental Remediation Ltd. (NER) was at the ready.

The Alberta company has long experience and a worldwide reputation for remediating and restoring contaminated soils. Its work at the site of the disaster near Tioga, northwest of Bismark, began in the June 2014, excavating the soil and heating it to high temperatures to remove the hydrocarbons. The 24-hour-a-day process continues today at what is now considered one of the largest on-shore spills ever in North America, further establishing NER’s—and Canada’s—expertise in the clean-tech sector.

Darryl Nelson and Yvonne Gruenthaler

“It’s been a game-changer for us,” says Darryl Nelson, president and CEO of NER, which is located in Spruce Grove, outside of Edmonton. The company has so far cleaned up nearly 500,000 tonnes of soil for Tesoro Corp., a Fortune 100 pipeline-refining and retailing company, at a cost in the tens of millions of dollars. The value of the job is expected to ultimately reach the upper 8-digit range, involve nearly a million tonnes of soil and take perhaps another two years to finish, he says. “This has taken us into a different league.”

Nelson started the company with his brother Warren in 1992, with the growing environmental movement and provisions under Alberta’s Environmental and Enhancement Act to reclaim contaminated oil-well sites in the province.

The process uses a huge mobile Thermal Desorption Unit (TDU) to heat the soil to high temperatures, rendering the volatile and semi-volatile organic contaminants in it harmless and even using the extracted compounds to fuel the remediation process. The results are verified by independent laboratory testing. The treated material is returned to the original excavation site, eliminating the need for costly backfill and avoiding the often-dangerous transportation of soil to landfill.

From its early days working on cleanup projects in Alberta, Saskatchewan and other parts of Canada, including the Arctic, NER got a call in 1999 from a Texas company working on a large gasoline pipeline spill in a farmer’s field near Dallas. That job and further word-of-mouth recommendations brought it work in Spain and beyond, including technology-transfer projects in places such as Nigeria, where NER was brought in to teach local companies to do the work themselves.

“It’s astounding the amount of contamination that’s out there,” comments Nelson, who is especially grateful that the company’s international business has kept it going through thin times in Canada.

“We would not be alive today if we did not have our export market. It’s the key to always having some workload in front of us,” he says, noting that with the lengthy sales cycles in the business, which can last years or even decades, long-term marketing and intelligence gathering are a must for NER.

The company is currently in negotiations on a number of different projects, for example Nelson is keen to get at so-called “legacy contamination sites” left by industrial uses and oil production. These include a 150-year-old oil field near the city of Baku in Azerbaijan and similar sites around the Caspian Sea. Another huge challenge is the “oil lakes” that resulted when Saddam Hussein’s retreating armies burned the oil fields in Kuwait following the 1991 Gulf War. That massive job is finally expected to come up for tender in a multiple-stage process later this year. “That’s a long sales cycle—I’ve spent one-quarter of my life on that one,” Nelson allows.

He says his company, one of only a handful in the world and the only firm in Canada doing this sort of work, gets “immense value” from the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) abroad.

“Few Canadians realize we have these kinds of resources like the Trade Commissioner Service available to us,” he says, noting that the TCS “works wonderfully” with Export Development Canada (EDC) to help his company connect with potential customers worldwide. “Each brings different values to the table.”

Yvonne Gruenthaler, a trade commissioner who provides export advice and support to clean-tech companies in the Prairies and Northwest Territories, says that Nelson “is very strategic in how he uses the TCS.” As a Trade Commissioner in Canada working out of Calgary, she plays a role for NER “similar to that of an account manager in a large firm,” she says.

“Whenever Darryl is beginning to broach a new market, one of his first steps is to call me and let me know of his plans and to discuss his next steps,” Gruenthaler explains. “Then, of course time permitting, our conversation turns to a review and update of all the other markets he is pursuing. Inevitably, our conversation will allow me to identify information and/or services that the TCS can help him with in many of these markets.”

Gruenthaler connects Nelson with her fellow trade commissioners around the world, who “truly become NER’s eyes and ears on the ground wherever he wants to do business,” she says. “It would be impossible for an SME like NER to duplicate the information-gathering capacity and the network of local contacts that the Trade Commissioner Service can bring.”

Nelson says the TCS has helped NER with intelligence, market information and introductions to key contacts that can lead to winning contracts overseas.

“You name the country,” he says. “They understand the political back-drop and the legal framework, they understand the drivers for the clients, they can do a lot of checks and understand the nature of the people we may be working with. They work at a high level but they also get into the grass roots of the country and what’s going on there.”

If the company wants to bring local agents on, for example, the TCS can help it learn about their track records and whether they are likely to work out. It can help guide it through challenges like labour mobility issues and the process of importing its equipment, such as the giant TDU apparatuses, and how to find suppliers abroad.

“The devil is in the details in our world,” he says. “It only takes a small detail to upset a multi-million dollar contract. When we go abroad, we have to develop trust and respect. It’s a process that takes some time,” he says, noting that Canada is “one of the world’s greatest brands. We don’t realize how well-regarded it is around the world. You're better off wearing the maple leaf loud and proud.”

Gruenthaler says that she’s proud to see a Canadian company “doing good things for the planet,” such as NER’s contract to clean up the Tioga oil spill. Its work supports a number of sustainable development goals such as clean water and sanitation as well as climate action. She says that while going global can be difficult for companies, “having international business to fall back on when times are tough in Canada greatly increases the resilience and staying power of any Canadian business.”

NER’s international business has driven the company’s growth in recent years, she notes, creating jobs at home and overseas. “I have seen Darryl and NER demonstrate their commitment to international business development. They have done their homework and researched their markets, with help from the TCS, and targeted markets where they feel they have a competitive advantage to other suppliers—or better yet, no competitors. They are building relationships in the market that will lead in time to success.”

Her advice to companies is to “get to know the TCS and let us get to know you,” she adds. “The challenges are many. Is the opportunity real? Who is the competition? What’s driving the local business case? What are the local laws and regulatory regimes that apply? Issues like ensuring we get paid, and accessing financing for international business development are key. Who are the potential local partners? How can we make strategic alliances? What else can go wrong? Is our IP sufficiently protected? The TCS can help with all of that,” says Gruenthaler.

Nelson notes that it can be difficult for small companies to go abroad. His advice? “Get on the phone with the TCS” and other organizations such as EDC. “With the help of the TCS and the protection of EDC, I can sign a contract that’s outside of Canada and there’s actually much less risk than there is working in my own backyard.”

As NER continues its cleanup work in North Dakota, Nelson is looking into future projects in China and Indonesia. He also hopes his company gets hired to do some of the cleanup work in Azerbaijan and Kuwait.

He feels that NER is not only getting ahead but also doing work that helps communities and the environment. “At the end of the day, another pile of soil is clean. It started out the day as a toxic liability, and it’s now an asset,” he adds, noting that remediated soil has been tested and shown to even be an improvement on the original, because the process removes pesticides and weed seeds, for example. “We know we’re doing good. We feel we make the world a better place.”

Contact the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service today.

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