By ANGELA H. HILL
In a nondescript warehouse carved out from the kudzu near Boones Mill Town Hall, chemical engineer John Garst takes a call about every 20 minutes. He fields requests from around the country — occasionally from around the world — from people looking to separate trash from treasure.
He jokes that his line of work revolves around “sludge,” but his company does not handle the waste itself. Boone Dominion Process Co. builds systems such as the one used in Miami to separate out biodiesel stock from the fats, oils and grease layer of the city’s wastewater treatment pit.
Garst’s crew of five men is currently fabricating a system destined for Mexico that will process dirty motor oil, using flash distillation to remove water, gasoline, antifreeze, the occasional leftover Coca-Cola and any other impurities so that the motor oil can be reused as various industrial oils and additives.
Business is good, Garst said, with prospects as far away as Africa. The problem is that some of these systems, which are the size of a shipping container, have to be built on their sides because the warehouse isn’t tall enough.
In June, Garst approached Boones Mill Town Council with a request to purchase 1 acre of town-owned property beside the historic train depot so that Boone Dominion can use an existing concrete pad to assemble equipment. Each project takes at least six months, and the systems are lifted by crane onto flatbed trucks for shipping.
Council agreed at its July 10 meeting to set a public hearing on the sale. The hearing is Aug. 13 at 6 p.m. at town hall.
At the council’s June meeting, Garst explained that he also doesn’t have enough room in the warehouse for more than two of his skid-mounted systems. The concrete pad on the property he’s eyeing would allow them to work on three or more at a time.
“It’s a great blessing to have too much to do, but physically, we don’t have the room in that shop,” he continued.
The warehouse, which Garst first rented from the town in 2016 and purchased last November, was once a factory. He cleaned out the 2-foot-tall layer of trash, removing a boat and miscellaneous junk. Should he purchase the adjacent property, Garst said he’ll free the former lumber shed from the relentless kudzu.
Town Manager B.T. Fitzpatrick said that Garst could add rail access should he want that for future shipping needs.
Garst said that was “way over the horizon” but remains a possibility.
“These skids that we build potentially would ship nicely on a flat car, and we may want to build things larger than we send down the road,” he told council. “That would change our ability to service clients from all over the world … it’s a very nebulous idea but the idea being that we might extend this second rail line behind the depot and up against this pad where there used to be a rail anyway.”
Garst told The Franklin News Post that depot visitors may find it intriguing to see what Boone Dominion does. The work has a sort of green, or environmental, component in that his clients are using the systems to recycle waste.
But at the end of the day, it’s really about economic viability, he said.
“The people who buy from me, they’re not doing this for fun and they’re not doing this to make the world a better place,” he added. “They’re doing it to make money.”
Garst grew up in Roanoke, and his family hails from Boones Mill. He said his grandfather built the bank that was most recently the town’s BB&T branch. He lives within walking distance from work, and his triplets grew up in Franklin County.
His clients are curious about his location, he added.
“I tell them I live in the greatest town in the greatest state in the greatest country on Earth,” he said.
While attending Dartmouth College, Garst declared chemistry as his major on a sort of whim, meaning to go back and change it later. He always knew he’d go into engineering of some sort, however, showing a passion for the field as a child.
“I’m lucky. I enjoy every bit of this,” he said, looking around his shop. “There are some tough days. There’s a saying that just because you can bake a biscuit doesn’t mean you can run a bakery.” If someone had told him four years ago that he’d have this much business and be able to make payroll every single period, he may not have believed it, he added.
What he’s most proud of, however, are his people. The crew of 10 includes part-timers who help with bookkeeping, payroll and engineering. His main crew is the team of men who weld and assemble the systems. He’s slow to hire and quick to fire, Garst said, but he aims to retain the group of solid, committed people.
“We all know each other well. We laugh a lot. We have each other’s backs,” Garst said. “This is a small business, so I can only hire grown-ups.”