LINDEN, New Jersey (Reuters) - At the small Gulf Oil terminal just south of Newark, New Jersey, mobile power generators are being packed up and tanker trucks are again loading gasoline, one month after Superstorm Sandy. But for the seven workers who run the terminal around the clock, life is still far from normal.
The electronic gauges that allow them to see how much fuel is stored at the site’s eight vast tanks are down, forcing them to manually check each unit when new fuel arrives by pipeline. The motor for the electric gate to the facility, normally opened and closed for each truck, is still broken after being flooded.
They now oversee the disbursement of more than 1 million gallons of gasoline, diesel and heating oil a day from a tiny temporary trailer. The concrete building that had been their office - scarcely larger than a corner convenience store - was destroyed in the storm, says terminal manager John Lamparella.
Operations at the Gulf terminal finally began to normalize a week ago, Lamparella said, when customers were first able to load their full quotas, or allocations.
“We’re close to full capacity. We have one bay down now, but we’re moving the trucks in and out,” he said. Even so, he said the facility is encountering “intermittent” problems.
“We’re going to be living with this for six months before we get everything back to 100 percent normal.”
Lamparella’s tale offers the most detailed view yet of how Sandy carved a deep scar across the biggest oil trading hub in the country, and how dozens of bulk terminals that break vast tanker or pipeline deliveries into smaller truck-sized shipments emerged as the most vulnerable links in the supply chain.
The Gulf Oil terminal, the only one the company runs in New York harbor, is 13 miles southwest of Manhattan in Linden, New Jersey, a critical crossroads for New York’s fuel supply. The area’s biggest pipeline, two major refineries, a dozen big terminals and hundreds of fuel tanks are within a five-mile radius.
For Lamparella, the initial focus was on protecting the eight towering fuel tanks, capable of holding more than 20 million gallons of fuel in total. Although the terminal is two miles inland from the Arthur Kill, the waterway separating Staten Island and New Jersey, it abuts the Rahway River.
“We initially thought we might have problem in the tank farm, not in the office,” said Lamparella.
On October 29 Jeff Bowers was the lone employee at the site. At 6 p.m. EST, just before the storm reached shore, he stopped loading tanker trucks at the facility’s eight “racks,” the equivalent of super-charged self-service fuel pumps that can fill hundreds of trucks a day, as often as every 20 minutes.
Bowers rushed to manually close the “outfall valves” that are normally used to drain rainwater from the large basins - or “tank dikes” - that surround each tank.
“With the high tide, full moon and the storm surge we were worried that water could go back up the valves, flooding the dike area,” said Lamparella, who has worked in the industry for decades and at the Gulf terminal for five years.
If too much water collects in the dike area empty tanks could potentially float off their foundations - like fat, round battleships - ripping out costly piping or causing spills.
“While he was out there doing that, the flood waters started coming up.”
Bowers returned to the office to safeguard two critical computer systems just as the water crept in. Lamparella, in touch by phone, told him to get out of the building. He huddled in his truck for the night, waiting for the tide to go out and the two-foot flood waters that had swamped the office to drain.
The next morning Lamparella found the tanks had been saved, but the terminal was without power, electrical systems flooded with corrosive seawater, the loading area strewn with storm debris and operations bedeviled by a host of glitches. Lead paint and asbestos in the office building will need to be remediated; crucial regulatory papers were a soggy mess.
Although other terminals suffered more severe damage or fuel spills, the process of resuming fuel supplies in Linden was arduous. The first challenge was restoring power, which had been severed to Linden and much of eastern New Jersey.
Lamparella said it took about a week to rent a portable generator large enough to power the terminal. Gulf Oil, a Framingham, Massachusetts-based company best known for its network of 2,000 gas stations on the East Coast, had secured several small ones for use at some retail outlets, but they were too weak for the team’s wholesale pumps.
Then it was a case of running it. Because the terminal was not equipped with the plug-in units required to easily connect a generator, workers had to disconnect electrical circuits from the grid to power up, a process that took about six hours. Power was restored a week later, but a second storm then triggered another blackout, forcing them to rev up the generator again.
Getting fuel for the units was also not as simple as it seems, despite the vast tanks in the near distance. Workers tapped into a small on-site pipelines to divert fuel; in one case they loaded up a tank truck at the rack in order to deliver it to a 1,000-gallon generator reservoir just a few feet away.
Even with backup power and working computer systems, Internet connectivity stymied operations in the first few weeks. The terminal’s Comcast link had gone down and their backup system - an AT&T cell system - was spotty. Without access to the central system, there was no way to validate fuel trucks when drivers swiped their individual cards to load up.
Four weeks after Sandy, the big generator is finally being returned, but months of work remain. The electronic gate is idle, and the remote gauges that monitor how much fuel is stored in Gulf’s big white and gray tanks are still not working.
As his team regularly trudge out across six-foot beams that segregate the tanks to check on fuel levels, Lamparella is resigned to months of extra effort to keep the gasoline flowing.
“It just means more work for us,” says Lamparella.
Reporting By Jonathan Leff; Editing by Steve Orlofsky