“We’re specialized here in pipeline. It’s different than anything else you might do – this pipe don’t give at all.” OE324 member and longtime pipeliner Tom McEvoy would know. McEvoy has been working in the pipeline and distribution sector as an Operating Engineer 324 member since 1989. Today, he’s showing me around the third phase of the 610 million-dollar Saginaw Trail Pipeline Project in Genesee County.
The Saginaw Trail Pipeline Project is just one of several pipeline and distribution jobs being worked on this year by the hard-working and dedicated members of Operating Engineers 324. Phases one and two of this project already saw 37 miles of old pipeline replaced by new sections of 80-foot pipe. Since this pipeline is used for natural gas, it gets special coating and sandblasting, as well as extensive testing before it’s even lowered into the ground.
Phase three is the longest section, as it runs outside of downtown Flint. When it’s completed, it will run almost 30 miles from Clio to Grand Blanc, under railroads, streets, highways and the Flint river.
It’s a complicated process, and one that is subject to constant supervision and inspection. “When we started, there was about 2 of us, and 54 inspectors,” notes McEvoy, laughing. “Consumers Energy has very rigid specifications.”
This phase will have almost 400 people working on it through the year. The production crew includes boring, the pipe gang, ditch excavation and running the 4 Horizontal Directional Drills (HDD) that will be used to place the pipe under the river and I-69. 150 of those 400 will be Operating Engineers. All 150 are IUOE members, and many of them belong to 324. Operating Engineers are joined by union welders, laborers and teamsters.
“There are some really congested areas where they are working,” says Greg Kanopka, Project Manager for project contractor Snelson. “They are digging, welding, coating, putting it in, tying it in, backfilling it in 4 miles of residential areas with utilities, drains, water, etc. Not to mention auto traffic. There are many overhead transmission lines. That’s why communication, spotters, 2-way radios, whistles, are so important.”
Jeff Sanderson, Supervisor and 20 year OE324 member adds, “We’re building roads, removing top soil, cutting grade. It’s all about production. 23 other crews coming in behind you. Laying mats, they keep every crew moving through, with production.”
In such a fast-paced and production-minded environment, Sanderson and Kanopka agree that it’s the training and safety Operating Engineers 324 members exhibit that makes all the difference.
“The biggest advantage in working with 324 to me is the confidence I have in the Operators. They’re safe and I can trust them to do the job,” says Kanopka. “They’re efficient at it, and they know what they’re doing. When I see 324 hats and vests, I know they’re looking out for everyone’s safety and interest.”
Vince Thompson has been with 324 since 2008, and he agrees. “A 324 Operator is a lot more safety conscious about everything involved, better in the environment, the neighborhood. A greater attention to detail. The safety orientation is second to none”
Thompson has been working on Pipelines for 10 years. “I enjoy pipelining. I run the ‘thumper’, the compressor, and the hammer for running stuff through. I’ll operate the track boring machine to go under the road.”
A project of this magnitude has heavy equipment around every turn, from the specialty side-boom cranes to excavators, dozers, boring machines and pumps. With that much equipment, maintenance and repair are a constant necessity. Billy Myers is a Master Mechanic on site, and has been with 324 for 13 years.
“We have a team of 3 mechanics and a greaser,” explains Myers. “We deal in dirt, and things get tore up. You name it, we fix it.”
“Today, we have winch cables to fix. Tomorrow, we’ll break down booms and move them around.”
McEvoy jumps in. “See, you start pulling on these pipes and you don’t always know how much pressure it’s going to take. The limit can be 3800 psi, and that’s all tension in the cables.” He smiles. “It’s not for the weak.”
“I’ve seen them snap like thread,” says Myers, who adds with a grin, “I like what I do. Somedays.”
They all agree that the industry on the whole has changed, and there are more opportunities for training now than ever before. McEvoy thinks it’s essential to keeping jobs safe, and preserving labor’s role.
“As 324 we have to stick together –and get this done the right way. we don’t want the non-union companies to come in here like they are building pipelines out west and down south. That’s what we try to teach these kids, to get into it now and learn it the right way.”
Kanopka points out that along with safety and training, overall professionalism has increased as well. “We get a lot of kudos and attaboys from neighbors and the community about the workers. We’ve had multiple instances of people thanking us for professionalism, how they conduct themselves.”
Sanderson mentions a story from the night before. “On Coldwater road, there’s an elderly couple with this huge yard.” He points to the distance for comparison. “Yesterday, when the Operators got off their dozer after work, they grabbed a push mower and mowed her yard. No one even asked them to, they just did it on their own time, after a 12 hour day.”
Sanderson adds, “I think it’s great that we’re seeing younger people, more women, different folks too. It’s growing, and getting even better.”
And when asked about the negative connotations that sometimes come with talk about pipelines, Thompson shakes his head.
“There are so many pipelines in the ground people don’t know about. Without them, put in right and maintained, the important products would be where – in trucks down the road? Making our roads worse? Or on rail? This gas is going to heat people’s homes. It’s going to keep the electricity on.”
“Pipelines are so much safer than any other option.”
“We’re strong – we stick together out here,” says McEvoy. “As a union, we gotta stick together, and we have to be good for the contractor too.”