Oil stored underground here goes on tongue, not in tank


June 12, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Baltimore, you might be surprised to learn, has the largest underground oil reserves of any city in the country. Not your dirty black $24-a-barrel Texas crude, of course. This is the good stuff that would go for about $1,000 a barrel if they sold it that way. They don't. They sell it by the ounce.

What we're talking about here is the golden edible kind. And not just any garden-variety vegetable oil either. This is unrefined extra virgin imported olive oil, the kind that gourmands and health-conscious consumers crave.

Since 1906 Pompeian Inc. has been importing olive oil in bulk and storing it at its building on Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore, a squat structure with stucco walls and a fake tile roof that is supposed to be reminiscent of a Mediterranean villa. Like other villas, this one keeps its oil in the cellar -- the largest underground oil storage facility of its kind in the United States. When the tanks are filled, the cellar contains almost 1 million gallons of oil.

How much oil is that? Imagine a big truck pulling a stainless steel trailer of the kind used to transport bulk liquids. Now take 172 of these rigs, fill them with oil and line them up on a highway. That 2-mile-long convoy of trucks could carry enough oil to fill Pompeian's underground storage tanks.

"We're the largest packer of olive oil in the United States," said Jaan Sulg, Pompeian's vice president of operations.

To produce a quart of oil, you have to crush 2,000 olives. That means it takes the oil of 8 billion olives to fill Pompeian's tanks. Finding enough olives is a crucial issue in view of the soaring demand for the oil, which has tripled in this country over the last six years. Pompeian's sales of oil have grown at about the same rate and now amount to about $30 million annually.

While the demand for olive oil has been soaring, the supply of olives has not. Raising olives is a very long-term proposition. Productive olive trees are commonly hundreds of years old, and until recently it took a generation for a farmer to bring new trees into production. "Your father planted, and your son harvested," Mr. Sulg said.

Using modern methods, it is now possible to get a tree to `D produce in about 10 years. But even that time frame is obviously too long to permit rapid expansion in response to the sudden increase in the popularity of olive oil in the United States.

Since 1975 Pompeian Inc. has been owned by Hispanoliva, a cooperative of Spanish olive oil producers. That connection has given Pompeian access to the supplies of Mediterranean olive oil it needs to keep pace with demand.

The basement of the company's Pulaski Highway offices is brimming with oil right now. This underground storage area, built in 1906, is dominated by 16 gray cylindrical storage tanks, each of them 110 feet long and 9 feet in diameter.

The tanks are glass-lined. So are all the pipes and valves that connect them. In effect, the area is an industrial-scale wine cellar, where the natural temperature of the earth keeps the tanks at a relatively constant temperature.

Not only is olive oil stored like wine, it is described in much the same terms of flavor and aroma.

"This one has bouquet and flavor," Mr. Sulg said of his product. "It's a distinctly fruity and flavorful oil."

How do you get such huge volumes of oil across the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean? The answer, of course, is by ship -- specialized tankers with stainless steel holds. Pompeian gets deliveries from two or three of these ship a year.

One of them unloaded 440,000 gallons of oil early this month. The ship, the Francesca Foresi, arrived at 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday. Eight trucks with tanker trailers were standing by. It took almost three hours to clear customs, hook up a 4-inch diameter hose to the ship's pumps and start the oil flowing.

Working through the night, the trucks moved 71 loads of oil in 21 1/2 hours, well within the 30 hours Mr. Sulg had allowed for the operation.

The oil unloaded from the ship represented something less than half of Pompeian's storage capacity at its Pulaski Highway facility.

It's important for Pompeian to have a large supply of oil on hand. Olives are harvested in the fall and pressed into oil in the next few months. That means supplies of oil on the market are lowest in the summer, just before the next harvest.

"In July if you want more oil, there's no more out there," Mr. Sulg said.

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