In the first of a nine-part Q&A series, Delta Western Terminal Operator Brandon Kurtzweil and Lead Terminal Operator Greg Walz answer questions about their lives, careers, and nominations for 2020’s awards.
On Dec. 8, 2020, Delta Western Terminal Operator Brandon Kurtzweil and Lead Terminal Operator Greg Walz discovered two pipeline leaks during a resupply operation. Their ability to work together cohesively, paired with their familiarity with the system and operating procedures, ensured an expeditious level of communication so a decision could be made on how to best proceed forward.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
BK: My name is Brandon Kurtzweil. I’m proud to call myself a lifelong Alaskan who works and supports the energy industry. I grew up in a small town called Wasilla, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Mat-Su Career & Tech High School, a career-driven educational system designed to prep students for the career of their choice. The pathway I chose was construction. After graduation, I joined the construction industry working for Nana Construction, building modular buildings for the northern oil fields. I saw these big semi-trucks hauling away those massive structures, and that’s when I knew I wanted to further my education and get my Class A CDL. I attended Northern Industrial Training and completed a six-week P.T.D.I. course to achieve my Class A CDL.
GW: I was born in Alaska and grew up in the Mat-Su Valley, about an hour north of Anchorage. My parents both worked for Carlile Transportation, and I spent a lot of time at the Carlile office putting together training binders, riding in the sleeper cab of a tractor with my two younger brothers, and climbing around a flatbed trailer when my stepdad brought loads home. I come from a pretty sizeable family: four brothers and two sisters. Most of us, including myself, worked for Carlile at some point. I graduated from Colony High School in 2008 and attended UAA for a couple of years pursuing a psychology and criminal justice degree, but I lost interest.
Tell us about your career, your current position, and what led you to it.
BK: After earning my Class A CDL, many opportunities opened up for me. I spent a couple of years hauling and pumping concrete all over Alaska. Once that slowed down during the winter season, I landed a temporary position driving out on the ice roads up on the North Slope. That eventually turned into a permanent job for the next several years. I learned how important it is to work safely and responsibly so we leave the least amount of impact on the environment. That was an eye-opener for me that has been life-changing. Eventually, work slowed down in the oil fields, which left me looking for a new career. I heard that Delta Western was on the search for a Methanol Terminal Operator. I was fortunate enough to become a valuable asset to an already great team.
GW: I spent my early years after high school working all over the place. I’ve been a landscaper, carpenter’s assistant, worked in a bakery, a moving company, set up stage and audio equipment for campus events at UAA, managed a thrift store, and even worked for Netflix for a time, if you can believe it. Back when the company mailed out DVDs, someone had to clean and inspect every disc that got mailed back before it got sent out again. When I dropped out of college, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I were planning to attend a trade school in Seward for its culinary and business management programs. Life had other unfortunate events planned, and we were unable to go through with the trade school. Luckily, not long after that, I got word that Carlile had an open slot in its grant program from the state to attend a six-week Class A CDL course through a local training facility. I finished the program in January of 2013, and two weeks later, Carlile hired me to drive a 26-foot box truck making local deliveries in the Anchorage area. After six months in a box truck, I was promoted and assigned to a tractor and began to expand my skillset into flatbed and tanker work. One year after starting at Carlile, I got the opportunity to join a project crew for the winter in Prudhoe Bay, delivering materials and equipment across the ice road for a massive bridge project in the Conoco Phillips – Alpine field. I was offered a full-time position at the Deadhorse terminal, and I worked there for the following four years. I learned things few other drivers my age could ever get the chance to, like driving groceries across an ice road built on top of the Beaufort Sea out to an island or delivering 100,000 pounds of explosives to a gravel mine pit and then getting to see it detonated. Unfortunately, in 2017, work in the oil and gas industry dropped significantly, and I had to transfer back to the Anchorage terminal. It was about August of that year when my manager approached me about needing someone to work a new contract Carlile had with Delta Western, helping them load methanol railcars and Carlile tankers to ship north. I accepted the new project, and it was shortly after, I met my current manager Tou Yang. For the next few months, I spent half of my week working with the DW methanol terminal, developed a strong relationship with the crew, and became very familiar with the equipment and operation. In November of 2017, Tou told me they had an open position for a class A driver at the terminal, and I applied and got hired. When I started, this terminal had only been operating for just under two years. While many industry standards and regulatory requirements laid out our work, very few operations like ours exist. We are among only a handful of bulk methanol facilities in the country. We’ve had the opportunity to design and implement many of our own site-specific procedures, training outlines, and equipment maintenance guidelines. This has granted us an extremely thorough understanding of our operation, and we take personal ownership of it. My current position is Lead Terminal Operator for the Anchorage methanol terminal.
Tell us more about catching the pipeline leaks last December. Was it just a typical day? For readers who aren’t familiar, describe a typical methanol “transfer.”
BK: On Dec. 7, 2020, I came on board as a new employee to the Delta Western Methanol Terminal. It was my first week of work and my first-ever methanol transfer between a ship and our terminal. I’d never worked a typical day as a terminal operator, but under the supervision of Greg Walz, I trained on how to walk down the pipeline from the POAVY (Port of Anchorage Valve Yard) to our terminal. This included the process of checking all connections, valves, flanges and performing security checks multiple times throughout the transfer. That evening, I was heading back over to walk down all the connections and pipelines at the POAVY when I got to the last section of exposed pipeline before it disappeared beneath the ground on its way to our terminal. I noticed a drip. I stood by for several minutes to verify what I saw was correct, and I knew at that point we needed to stop the transfer. I returned to the terminal and updated Greg on the situation. Greg immediately contacted the ship, stopped the transfer, and contacted/reported to all the proper personnel according to our terminal spill reporting procedures. Greg did an exceptional job maintaining a calm and professional presence during this unforeseen situation. His leadership gave me confidence that I was working for a great company and a great team.
GW: In a typical transfer, or tank resupply, from the time a ship docks up, some 1.5 million gallons of methanol is pumped out over 15 to 20 hours. We work two shifts to cover the transfer, each crew consisting of one PIC (Person in Charge) and one additional operator. After the ship has docked, the shoreside PIC is craned onto the ship in a man basket and conducts a safety briefing with the ship’s PIC to verify cargo amounts onboard, available space in the shore tank, flow rates, and safety requirements, among many other items. After the briefing, we return to our terminal and ensure our facility is ready to receive, confirm it with the ship, and the transfer begins. We perform inspections for flow rate, API density sampling, security checks, and pipeline/tank checks on an hourly basis for the duration of the transfer. It was during one of those hourly checks that Brandon Kurtzweil discovered our first leak. It was his first week on the job. Because this transfer took place in December in Alaska, much of the pipeline had snow on it. The product we receive from a ship can be anywhere from 40 to 90 degrees depending on what other cargo is on board, and it will melt any snow and ice buildup along the pipeline. Brandon spotted the leak because all of the snow and ice had melted off the line, but he found one spot still dripping. He informed me as soon as he could and asked if I could verify. Methanol has a very distinct odor, and I recognized it immediately. I called the ship over the radio and requested an all-stop. The leaking section was isolated, drained, cut out, repaired, and refit. We found the second leak while a hydrostatic test of the pipeline was running post-repair. The pressure was steadily building in the pipeline and had reached about 100 psi when it abruptly stopped climbing. I quickly began inspecting the pipeline and found another leak in an almost identical spot (on a weld, directly after a flanged section).
Your story stands out as a stellar example of why following procedure works. Do you agree? What might have happened if you’d skipped over the resupply line check and the initial leak never found?
BK: I believe that if we missed the leaks and the transfer of methanol continued, there was a great chance that the line could have ruptured, resulting in a horrific spill affecting not only our terminal but any other terminals here at the Port of Anchorage that had transfers of their own lined up after the completion of ours. Not only would it have been an extremely dangerous and expensive situation to clean up, but if it were to have somehow found its way into the surrounding waters, we would have been contaminating/polluting the environment with a unrecoverable product because methanol mixes 100 percent with water. That said, following procedures and knowing what to look for, going the extra mile to do the job correctly even when nobody is around, is key to a successful operation.
GW: I wholeheartedly agree, in every industry, human error exists, and all equipment/components fail given enough time. Methanol, the only product we deal with, is carbon-based alcohol that eats through anything it comes into contact with eventually. It is not a matter of if, but when, for us, and if we lapse in maintaining our discipline, we’ll miss things like these leaks. It is hard to say exactly how severe the leak could have become if we had not found it as soon as we had. We found small fractures in the immediate surrounding area of the leaking welds through x-ray examination, so what was at the time a very minimal leak could certainly have developed into a serious incident.
Is there something in your life that helped develop a safety mindset in you?
BK: Living in Alaska, safety culture is a way of life. As an avid snowmachiner, I go out riding in the mountains where you could be swept away by an avalanche or just simply break down in below-freezing temperatures with no communication, just yourself and the supplies you brought. Working up in the Arctic Oil Fields, safety was also a key element to completing any task. Proper training goes along with safety – knowing the procedures, knowing where your evacuation locations are, and finally, knowing who to call in the event of an emergency. Coming on board with Delta Western under Tou Yang (Terminal Manager) and Greg Walz (Lead Terminal Operator), I knew that I would enjoy working with them. They had the terminal and operations/procedures dialed in, materials and parts were all organized, tools were organized, all the equipment had been taken care of and was in good shape, and the best thing is both Tou & Greg relayed to me that they would rather us do the job correctly even if it takes a little longer than have us rushing through and have a mistake. I’d never worked under Saltchuk, but I am proud to be a part of a great company and look forward to the years ahead.
GW: My mother (Lisa Marquiss, Safety & Compliance Director, Carlile) definitely has a lot to do with how I operate. Surprising, right? Growing up, I heard countless stories of the various accidents and injuries in the trucking industry, and I got a genuine understanding of how badly things can go when you make the wrong decisions. Most of the causes of the accidents/incidents I grew up hearing about were things like fatigue, rushing a task, or panic, and I learned that while the conditions of our work are often out of our control, how we prepare for and react to them is always a choice. It is my personal responsibility to come to work properly rested every day, make a conscious effort to remain disciplined and do my job the right way, even I am behind, and to learn everything I can about my work so that when things go wrong, I can handle them calmly and safely.
Think about a time in your career when you felt like what you were doing was somehow less than completely safe. What did you learn from that experience?
BK: When I was 19 years old, I decided to get my Class A CDL, not knowing how difficult it was to find a job where I could get hired to drive. I ended up getting many responses back from potential employers saying I was too young to add to their insurance policies and to try applying in a couple of years when I was older. Finally, I was able to get a job hauling wood and driving dump truck for a small outfit. I worked hard for them and tried to do anything they asked of me to show that I was a dependable, hard-working employee and gain experience for a job further down the road. One warm spring day, I was to haul several loads of gravel across an ice road built over a lake to my employer’s cabin on an island. When I arrived at the ice road, I noticed standing water as far as I could see, so I contacted my boss and expressed my concern. He assured me I would be fine and that he really needed me to get the material to his property. So I continued and completed several loads of gravel to his property. After getting back onto the main road and heading home for the evening, I listened to a local radio channel. They reported that no more than an hour after I’d gotten off the ice, a pickup truck had fallen through that same ice road, and the driver had drowned. At that moment, I understood that a person’s safety and well-being are more important than taking risks that could end tragically.
GW: In my first job after high school, I worked for a small landscaping and construction outfit. The construction we did wasn’t overly complex, mostly decks, fences, and stone retaining walls. We did most of our work in Eagle River, just 15 or 20 minutes north of Anchorage. The city of Eagle River is largely built across a mountainside, which means you’ll encounter endless rocks if you have to do a lot of digging. On this particular occasion, our job for the day was to dig all the holes later filled with concrete to act as deck supports. My boss would bring a bobcat over with an auger attachment to finish the hole to the proper depth when we couldn’t go any deeper. The problem was, every couple of minutes, the auger would find a rock and not dig any farther. So, I would lay on my stomach and fish out these rocks about the size of a football. My boss would lift the auger just enough to get my arm beneath it and get the stone out. The last time we did it this way, while I had my arm down the hole, my boss accidentally engaged the auger. I was lucky that my arm wasn’t in contact with the auger at that time, and I came away from it unharmed, but I could have been seriously injured or even lost my arm. I learned from this to slow down and think through the task at hand before pushing forward. There was no reason to leave the bobcat running while my arm was down there or even leave the auger in the hole. But, nobody ever stopped to consider if the way we were doing things was the safest way to do it.
Speaking up for safety can be difficult for some people. What advice would you give to someone within our family of companies who’s convinced their feedback won’t matter – or worse, that they’ll somehow be punished for taking action?
BK: During my days working in the Oil Fields of the North Slope, I was lucky enough to have joined a safety team. Safety had always been an interest of mine, so it was a great way to learn more and help others understand that safety is everyone’s responsibility. During this time, our task was to share that it was important to speak up and communicate risks/hazards by completing Safety Participation Cards and the importance of turning them in so they could get documented and tracked; that way, we could follow up on the SPC’s and resolve as many issues as we could to make and improve the safety and well-being for all employees. We also wanted to reiterate that speaking up about safety would not get anyone punished but is needed to help become a safe and successful operation. I hope anyone reading this understands that we want all our employees to feel safe at their workplace and know that if they had any issues/concerns that could jeopardize anyone’s well-being, speaking up is the right thing to do.
GW: I’ve always thought that if you cared about the work you do and the people around you, that speaking up for safety wouldn’t be difficult at all. However, for the folks out there who are struggling, think of it this way: a company that performs its work safely is a profitable one. When you don’t constantly have to pay to replace damaged equipment, clean up spills, or deal with fines and lawsuits, you have the capital for things like bonuses, raises, and new equipment. A safe company also maintains a greater reputation, allowing it to collect more business, and again, in turn, more profit. To those worried about the repercussions of speaking out against an unsafe act or condition, I would tell them that if they had information that could save someone’s life or limb, prevent equipment/property damage, or prevent a spill, it makes no sense that a reasonable supervisor would dole out punishment for it. Additionally, I have now worked for two Saltchuk companies and have received the same message of encouragement to speak up for safety and that every employee has the authority to stop work whenever they feel presented with an unsafe condition.