CARMI, Ill.—Elastec/American Marine Inc.'s top officials haven't let notoriety go to their heads.
Thrust into the spotlight for months as it took the lead in the massive effort to halt the spread of oil in the Gulf of Mexico—after the Transocean drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded on April 20, 2010—the company today remains what it has always been: a producer of a variety of products that for the most part operates under the radar.
Only it's now much bigger than it was two years ago.
The polyurethane, rubber and vinyl containment boom maker has added a factory in Fairfield, Ill., to accommodate its expanding production capabilities and growing customer base. Spanning close to 50,000 square feet, the facility has a work force of about 40 and the firm plans to add to that as the business grows.
E/AM primarily will make booms for the containment of pollutants on water along with storage tanks used for oil collection at the new facility, according to Greg Cassell, vice president of the Boom Division.
Not all of the booms are off the shelf, Marketing Director Linda Henning said. “We do a lot of custom booms.”
Headquartered in Carmi, where its main complex consists of three buildings, the company also has a three-building factory site in Cocoa, Fla. Previously all containment booms were made in Cocoa, said Cassell, who heads up both the new Fairfield and Florida operations.
E/AM's new factory will free up needed space to manufacture other products in Cocoa, he said.
The Fairfield facility was needed because E/AM has been growing rapidly in the last two years, Cassell said. “We need a lot of volume and we need inventory. And after the spill in the Gulf we needed more space because of new business and for potential emergencies.”
Elastec was launched by entrepreneurs Donnie Wilson and Jeff Cantrell in 1990 in the middle of the Illinois basin, a hotbed for oil and gas production, according to Henning.
Wilson had owned a welding company while Cantrell was in the oil business.
They invented a specialized oil skimmer that caught on because it removed more oil than water, she said. They began manufacturing the product and gaining business both in the U.S. and globally.
Wilson and Cantrell continued to develop oil spill equipment technology, and Elastec branched out.
In 1997 it formed a partnership with American Marine, a manufacturer of containment booms founded in 1967, and expanded further, ultimately becoming one of the largest makers of oil spill equipment in the world. Cantrell is president of the combined firm, and Wilson is the CEO.
Its patented rubber urethane Hydro-Fire Boom and American Fireboom systems are used when pollution control is needed, and especially when oil spills occur. Other equipment E/AM makes also is utilized in such situations, including skimmers, incinerators, custom tarps, vacuum systems, disbursement systems, containment curtains and workboats.
Its oil skimmers are among the best in the business, company officials said. In 2011, E/AM captured the $1 million top spot in the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge competition with a grooved disc skimmer.
The device can be towed through the water at a pace of three or four times that of conventional booms and skimmers, with a recovery rate of 4,670 gallons per minute, giving it an oil recovery efficiency rate of 89.5 percent.
E/AM also makes PermaFence/NetBoom, often used to block jellyfish from jamming water intake filters of power plants. The heavy-duty system is constructed from specially molded, foam-filled floats surrounded by ultraviolet- and abrasion-resistant high-density poly- urethane.
Into the fray
The company, which has sales offices worldwide and distributes its products to 145 countries, moved from virtual obscurity to the front lines two years ago after BP America's Deepwater Horizon burst in the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately becoming the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
A response team of E/AM officials—including Wilson, Cantrell, Alex Smith, Charles Storey, Shon Mosier, Don Johnson, Salih Kilercioglu, Brian Orr and others—headed to the Gulf a few days later.
The company's Hydro-Fire Boom—an inflatable fire resistant, water-cooled boom designed to contain surface oil and burn it offshore—had been requested to help manage the controlled burns. The U.S. Coast Guard selected the boom for a test it conducted in an attempt to control the oil floating on the water's surface. It worked.
BP America and the Coast Guard then authorized controlled burning and every available fire boom was called into action, with E/AM and its team of officials in the lead, to clear the oil and reduce the impact on the shoreline and the Gulf's ecosystem.
The company's crews often worked 16 hours a day for months overseeing, containing and igniting the majority of more than 400 controlled burns in the sea, according to Smith, product development engineer for E/AM.
The majority of the burns were conducted with the firm's booms, he said, as the crews from E/AM worked for three months to control the oil spills and fires.
“We often worked from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. burning oil in the sea,” he said. “We went out hunting oil every day, driving around in our small boats lighting fires, containing spills and cleaning up.”
On June 18, 2010, alone, between 50,000 and 70,000 barrels of oil were removed from the Gulf using E/AM's systems and between 219,000 and 309,000 barrels of oil were estimated to have burned.
E/AM's Hydro-Fire Boom proved to be the most effective for burning oil, company officials said, while its American Fireboom system was the second-highest performer.
Ring of fire
Smith originally was asked to spend a couple of weeks on the Gulf to do whatever he could to help. Initially, his task was to design a more reliable igniter, which he was able to handle without much difficulty.
He began building the igniter 24 hours later on board the fleet's first command vessel. He also handled other duties until a second task force was formed. “At that point, I trained several crew members on the construction of the igniters and took responsibility for the second task force,” he said.
The operation constantly grew but the bulk of the work was done by the two task forces, each consisting of a command vessel, three or four service boats, three fast ignition vessels and 14-16 fishing boats, according to Smith.
“The command vessel carried supplies for all vessels, the fast boats and ignition crews, and operations management,” he said. “Service vessels carried health and safety personnel and boom, both new and used.
“The fast boats were responsible for igniting the fires as well as micro-managing the fishing boat teams and doing on-the-water repairs to the fire boom systems. Two fishers would tow one boom system in order to gather as much oil as possible both before and during a burn.”
Wilson and Smith remained through the entire clean-up of the Gulf, while Cantrell was there most of the time, Smith said.
Normally, the sea is not where he, Wilson, Cantrell or the other company officials would find themselves on a day-to-day basis. In Smith's case, he usually works on the development of rubber products for the firm at an E/AM plant.
An oil spill the size of the one that occurred in the Gulf is a rare occurrence, Henning said. “We don't normally act as responders. But they requested our oil containment booms, so we sent a team led by Donny Wilson to head up controlling the burn.”
E/AM's prime role is to develop and manufacture pollution recovery systems, specializing in products for oil spill recovery, Smith said. But if a major spill occurs like the one in the Gulf, he said, the company has the wherewithal and resources to respond quickly and effectively if needed.