Toxic avengers

Lee’s Environmental, a Brisbane-based family business, makes the most of mining the less desirable recesses of the most desirable holiday destinations in the country. Noosa.

Surfer’s Paradise. NSW Northern Rivers. The vacuum excavation company covers territory beyond the edge of the postcard, in transit between acreage estates, landfill sites and, to cite one specific account, the Stradbroke Islands Ferry, where it rides the barge to the community of holiday houses that need servicing every holiday season when the homes, having gone unoccupied for months on end, are suddenly overpopulated by big family gatherings.

Septic storage like celebrations often reach a limit.

Lee’s Environmental also attends to the fleet of barges operating from the mainland to Stradbroke and other Bay Islands. Depending on the vessel in question, each has an onboard sewage system, usually installed with a macerator, which breaks down the waste before its pumped out. Sometimes the truck will go on the return trip with the barge. If time permits, however, the job will be completed while the ferry is unloading at the dock.

Seeking new efficiencies in the area of suction excavation, Lee’s Environmental purchased a state-of-the-art industrial pump from Italian manufacturer Jurop. While blower pumps are not uncommon in the liquid waste market, the Helix 2000, as it has been named, can reportedly load its 10,000 litre tanks in just two minutes. The investment hastened, in turn, an infrastructure response and a new model Fuso Heavy FS Series was added to its fleet of 30 commercial vehicles, for the specific purpose of transporting the new equipment according to company Director Peter Sprague.

“For the last seven years we worked a Fuso 8×4 with a vacuum tank for high pressure drain cleaning and it hasn’t missed a beat,” he says. “It’s been a fabulous truck. We had to build another one because sometimes it’s got to be in two places at once.”

A longer wheelbase was necessary, making an 8×4 configuration as Peter tells it, a prerequisite. As Fuso supports a body length of 8.3 metres, Daimler Trucks in Brisbane was approached for the job of engineering the tank and vacuum. Body builder, Air and Gas Industries, based in Wacol, liaised directly with Daimler on the cab chassis design and with Jurop in Italy through their Australian agent. The process lasted over a year.

“We had no qualms about whether Air and Gas had the capabilities to do the job having worked with them on several previous occasions,” says Peter. “They had to get the weight up and the right balance between the twin-steer at the front and the bogey tri-axle at the back. We’ve had it in operation for a few weeks and it’s now being seen in the marketplace and starting to earn us some money.”

As a rigid truck suited to applications requiring high weight distribution across the front axles, the Fuso Heavy FS is, rated at 31 tonnes gross vehicle mass (GVM). Accessing grease traps requires it to squeeze into some inconvenient, tight spaces for a commercial vehicle that size. Peter says they have since modified the vehicle by augmenting it with a lazy axle.

“It’s there for extra capacity as it’s got 10,000 litres on the back, and we’ve been able to increase the payload,” he says.

Peter’s son Cameron Saunders, a company Director, says the eight inch boom on top of the pump requires hydraulics, as it’s too large to lug by hand.

“It provides deep vacuuming and drops down to 50 metres with a heap of air flow that goes up to 92 per cent vacuum,” he says. “Most body builders only put blowers on trucks and even then these might only achieve 50 per cent efficiency.”

Despite the high volume it can extract in one session, the new Helix is much quieter than a lot of the other vacuum pumps according to Cameron who says there is a dearth of high power vacuum tankers with drain cleaning capabilities on the Australian market. It was a primary reason behind Lee’s Environmental building their own.

“In building the vehicle we had to listen to the needs and requirements of our customers. We have found Council Pump Stations are getting much deeper, as new housing estates are commissioned,” he says. “It was becoming obvious that we needed a truck capable of sucking to a depth of 50 meters through an eight inch hose. This would eliminate most blockages which occur in smaller diameter hoses.”

No stranger to Jurop vacuum pumps, Lee’s Environmental has found them to be the most efficient and reliable of their kind in the world.

Once they had decided upon the pump the next consideration was the horsepower required to move it. Cameron explains they settled on 455hp which would allow the vacuum pump to operate at 92 per cent full vacuum and full suction of 5800 cubic feet per minute (CFM). The next job was to search for a suitable cab chassis to mount it on.

“We also needed the truck to drain cleaning industrial, stormwater and sewerage pipes from 150mm to 2 metres in diameter,” he says. “The pump required for this task needed another 100 horsepower to run it.”

Insofar as the Fusos operate for long hours they aren’t required to work at high mileage. Most of the time the vehicles are immobile running the PTO that drives the hydraulic vacuum pump. The Fuso Heavy front axle comfortably supports 6.5 tonne. Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) technology, well suited to this application, allows the vehicle to run cooler, removing the need to perform a diesel particulate filter burn off and, according to Fuso. The digital dash includes trip computer with fuel economy data and the vehicle can support up to three reversing cameras.

Because the climate in southeast Queensland is warm for a majority of the year, inground pools are in abundance. Lee’s Environmental transports pool chlorine and in addition to Class 3 flammable waste such as fuel, ethanol, methanol and petrol. Lee’s also carries insecticides, pesticides and herbicides and other Dangerous Goods.

Founded in 1980, Lee’s Environmental was purchased 15 years ago by Peter and Marlene Sprague, and their sons Brett and Cameron. Initially located at Victoria Point, Lee’s have recently moved into a $1 million new office/workshop and holding yard complex, located just off the M1 at Stapylton. A branch has also been established in Emerald in the Central Highlands of Queensland to cope with the rising demand for liquid waste removal.

Cameron’s brother Brett Saunders installed the business’ information technology system. For general repeat type of work the company relies on Service M8 for telematics solutions. This tracks the commercial vehicles and provides job allocation and computer generated invoices. Marlene oversees finances and administration.

At the new head office, which has been environmentally approved by local council and the EPA, smaller trucks holding 2,000 and 8,000 litres of waste dump their contents into holding tanks on site. Three dedicated semi-trailers with 22,000 litre tanks then remove it to various treatment plants and landfill.

All commercial sites which generate oily water run-off as a by-product of their operations are required to have oily water pits installed to prevent the oils from entering council sewer lines. Because oil floats, it is held in a compartment by adjustable weir baffles, while cleaner water is able to flow out of the oily water pit. Operational challenges throw up many variables that must be factored in when coping with the logistical task of matching commercial vehicles with access points – given septic tanks and grease traps are often found in hard-to-get-to locations.

“On acreage properties with long, tree-lined driveways it’s often difficult to get a 16 tonne GVM vehicle down there,” Cameron says. “You can’t mix grease and septic waste as they require two different dumping points. Even the big boys like JJ Richards and Cleanway struggle with the same problem.”

Over the years it wasn’t uncommon for Cameron or Peter to receive an emergency call out in the middle of the night to attend to someone’s house when the septic was overflowing down a hill into the pool or onto the roadway.

“It’s all part and parcel of working a family business,” Peter says. “In the odd hours people call up with a problem and the bigger companies at that time can only offer an answering machine. It’s been our job to take care of it.”

According to Peter, the hardest part of a transport business these days is finding the right people. It goes beyond mere qualifications.

“It’s not as simple as having staff members with a heavy combination licence who can drive the trucks,” he says. “It’s having courtesy and professionalism that go with it and knowledge about liquid waste and vacuum excavation. Having the ability to say ‘no sir, yes sir.’”

Lee’s Environmental prides itself on delivering superior customer service. Part of honouring such a commitment is investing in quality people and transport equipment.

“I was already 56 when we got into this game. I can only imagine what we might have achieved, the way we are growing, had I started when I was 20,” Peter says. “We’re only scratching the surface of this business.”

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