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OE324 Getting the Job Done in the Clouds and Under the Ground

OE324 Getting the Job Done in the Clouds and Under the Ground

Winter 2023 Engineers’ News

Operating Engineer Steve Kruithoff has a unique way of tracking how high the tower crane he is manning today has grown.

“When we started, we used to watch the Coast Guard helicopters fly overhead,” Kruithoff explains.  “It flies at about 500 feet, so we’d watch them go by.  Now, we watch them fly 300 feet below us!”

It’s a clear day today, with a bright sun and a chill in the air.  Kruithoff sits in the cab of the massive crane at the Gordie Howe International Bridge site, almost 800 feet in the air.  His vantage point allows him to look north, past the skyscrapers downtown and past the Belle Isle bridge, all the way to Lake St. Clair.  He is sitting – and working – at a higher altitude than any other in the lower peninsula.  The Bridging North America tower crane is even higher than the top of the Renaissance Center, the tallest building in Michigan.

Kruithoff operates the tower crane on the weekends and when needed, while fellow OE324 Operator Tom Kipen is the crane’s primary operator.  They start at the ground level, take a buck hoist past the road deck that extends over the Detroit River, and get off around 400 feet up the tower.  From there, they will climb the ladders and scaffolding over 300 feet higher.  The trip has meant climbing into the clouds themselves some days.

On a clear day like today, the operator in this tower crane can look to the west-southwest and spot a massive mountain of blue salt almost exactly two miles away.  There, Operating Engineer 324 members are preparing for their day as well.  But they are headed in the opposite direction – straight down.

As the doors close and lock on the elevator decending the hundred-year old mine shaft, Operating Engineers like Steward Ryan Roedel prepare to enter a world that would be as foreign to most people as the BNA operator’s place among the clouds. 1,200 feet beneath Detroit city streets (and 2,000 feet below the BNA tower crane), the Detroit Salt Company is mining the salt that Michigan municipalities will be using to melt ice and snow all winter.

What awaits Roedel at the bottom of the mine shaft – a trip that only takes a minute – is a vast expanse of mining operations that is unimaginable to the bustling streets above.  The mine stretches out for 1,500 acres and has over 100 miles of underground roads.  The temperature is a consistent 65 degrees year round, and there is a constant soft whirring of miles and miles of conveyor belts.  Here, tons of rock salt are being mined, moved, broken down, colored, and sent to the surface where it will be loaded into ships, trains, and trucks and transported all over North America.

Despite the fact that any heavy equipment necessary for mining operations has to be disassembled, transported down, and then reassembled, there is no shortage of equipment – or Operating Engineers 324 members to operate it.  There are miners operating cutting edge, remote controlled, fully electric mining machines, that spin a carbide-tip armed wheel to tear at the salt walls and drop the results onto a conveyor that runs its length.  There are massive loaders, picking up the salt and transporting it to the conveyors that run miles to the mine shafts that return it to the surface.  There are fork trucks, which help the loaders get the salt to the conveyors.

Here, in a tower crane among the clouds overlooking southeast Michigan and in a salt mine thousands of feet below the surface of the city, OE324 operators are working in the highest and lowest physical locations anyone can work in the city.

Working Above the Clouds

Rich Hutchinson has been an Operating Engineer 324 member for 42 years.  He’s worked on the construction of Joe Louis Arena, Comerica Park, Little Caesars Arena, and a “couple of high-rise buildings.”  He worked on the Blue Water Bridge joining the US and Canada in Port Huron.  But it is this bridge, the Gordie Howe International Bridge, that he calls “the pinnacle” of his career.

The bridge project broke ground in 2018, and Hutchinson joined it two years later, in 2020.

“It was just as the drill shaft caissons were being completed,” he explains. “So I’ve been here since we started any kind of the footings and the tower coming out of the ground, and all the steel erection.”

Hutchinson is the general foreman for the operators, as well as the lift director, the assembly-disassembly director, and trains and directs the signal rigging for all the crafts working on site. It may seem like a lot, but Hutchinson brushes it off.

“That’s what we do.”

As the general foreman, Hutchinson has been able to assemble a great team to operate the daunting amount and class of equipment needed.  On this day, he has 57 OE324 operators working on the main span – the approach, tower, and deck.  There are civil side members, operating excavators, dozers, and other equipment.  And of course, there are the cranes.

“Obviously, we’ve got the tower (crane),” Hutchinson explains, “but we have crawler cranes, ranging from 440 ton down to 200 ton. We have IC-80 and IC-200 Broderson cranes.”

He motions to the end of the deck, currently extending well over the Detroit River as fishing boats bob hundreds of feet below.

“And here we have a state-of-the-art, MLC-300, crawler crane with the VPC-MAX, which is currently on top of the deck. Here we have another back in the approach.”

Kruithoff is one of the operators running the cranes on the site.  While Kipen is been the primary operator in the tower crane, Kruithoff has spent his time on the project both backing him up on nights and weekends, as well as spending considerable time with the crawlers and Brodersons.

Kruithoff has 36 years of experience as an Operating Engineer.  Kipen and him have known each other for nearly 30 years, and together they have climbed with the tower crane as it rose each new level.

A typical day starts at 6:00 am with an hour of inspection and climb time.  It can take up to 30 minutes for them to reach the tower crane itself, climbing up hundreds of feet of vertical access ladders.  Once in the crane, the nearly constant work of moving materials around the bridge site begins.

“So we’re bringing fuel cells to the heaters on tower, as well as lifting portajohns and trash down,” details Kruithoff. “We’re pulling pipes to attach.  We’ve helped with elevator repair, and if necessary, we do emergency rescue.”

Inside the tower that holds the bridge cables, there are hundreds of tradespeople performing their respective tasks – ironworkers, carpenters, laborers, pipefitters and more.  But they are all reliant on the materials and assistance the crane operators are providing.  Outside, it means lifting concrete and rebar into place, as well as pulling the winches and setting the cables.

That is a large part of why Hutchinson is so proud of the assembled team.

“I’m really happy that I was able to bring on the guys that I brought on. They’re all excellent field professionals.”

He pauses to name a few.

“Obviously Tom and Steve (Kruithoff),” says Hutchinson. “Steve Struthers who runs my crane out here. I’ve got Aaron Payne, who is running the 16,000 down there below. They have been really instrumental in all the heavy lifting out here. We had John Haberkorn here, Mike Cody, and Brett Nelson as well.”

There are also ten apprentices currently working there, oiling and gaining invaluable experience.

“This is a great project for (apprentices) to learn on because of the scope of the project and the heavy, heavy lifting that we do,” says Hutchinson. “Everything we do is critical lift plans because it exceeds 75% of the rated crane charts. And we also build and rebuild cranes – tear them apart and move them – so they get their hands on them at all times.”

Back in the tower crane, Kruithoff is fully aware of the uniqueness of this place and this job.  As the Canadian side is built simultaneously, he looks across at what seems like a mirror image of the site he is stationed over – tower crane, bridge tower, deck expanding over the river.  Freighters pass underneath, and sunrises and sunsets have never looked more spectacular.

He jokes that his wife has grown tired of hearing him describe sunsets.  After one call, as he explained “it was bright yellow, then red and burgundy, shining on the tower,” she reminded him that “they have sunsets where (she was) too,” he laughs.

Still, sitting in the cab of a crane higher into the air than any other person working in Detroit, and further off the ground than anyone working in the entire state, Kriuthoff is grateful that he was able to work on this project to cap his exceptional career.  He was set to retire early next year, but as the tower crane life has been extended into autumn 2024, he has made plans to stay around and see it through.

“What better job to go out with than on something like this?”

Beneath The City Streets

There are two miles horizontally and 2,000 feet vertically separating the tower crane and the salt mine shaft bottom, but they are worlds apart.  Just as the sky stretches endlessly today in the crane, there is absolute darkness everywhere just a few hundred yards from the well-lit shaft entrance.  There may not be sunsets, but there is something equally unique and oddly appealing: salt.

400 million years ago, a vast expanse of salt deposits formed under much of Michigan, including the city of Detroit. Buried deep beneath sediments in the area known as the Michigan Basin, deposits formed horizontal salt beds, as ancient bodies of water receded and evaporated. The basin was an arid area of Michigan’s lower peninsula separated from the ocean by a natural bar of land. As the basin continued to sink lower into the earth, salt-laden ocean water repeatedly poured into the depression, where it gradually evaporated, forming miles of salt beds.

That is why 1,200 feet below the city of Detroit and its suburbs, a rich deposit of rock salt exists, and why it provides an excellent location for one of the most unique mines in the world.

If it weren’t for that constant mid-60s temperature, a visitor wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they were in an arctic cave of some sort.  The walls, ceiling, floors are all white and textured, and there is a flaky white coating on every surface, sometimes almost a foot deep.  But it is not ice or snow – it is salt.  The walls, roads, floors and ceilings are the actual salt deposit with the area where activity occurs just the hollowed out mines themselves.  The salt that covers nearly every surface is the reason this mine exists – loose rock salt, dug from highly engineered paths throughout the miles and miles of caverns before being loaded, conveyed, broken up, colored, and transported to the top.

Detroit Salt Company General Manager Yasir Anwar explains that the mining process was not always the highly engineered and safety first operation it is now.

“You can see where the (openings) are rounded and uneven,” he says, looking at the mine paths you first see as you head deeper into the mines.

“When the mine was first started (in 1906), they blasted the salt out which made these uneven jagged openings.”

The mine originally operated until the early 1980s, when it was shuttered.  In the late 1990s, the Detroit Salt Company purchased the mine with the intent to produce the high quantity deicing rock salt midwestern and eastern communities need in the winter.  With that new opening came new techniques and methods.

The Detroit Salt Company employs what is called the “room and pillar” system. This method creates massive pillars, which support the mine roof and the overburden separating the mine from the surface. Parallel galleries – or rooms – give the mine a checkerboard pattern, allowing machinery to easily move a design for future expansion and serves as an air course for fresh, ventilated air in worker-occupied areas.  It leads to the feeling the mine is actually a massive building, with roads and walls.

Since 2014, blasting has been eliminated from the mine.  Now, miners use autonomous mining machines to dig through the salt walls and create new squares on the “checkerboard.”  The machines are fully electric, eliminating one source of pollution in the mine, and by eliminating blasting, the mine is both safer and eliminates the threat of shaking the oblivious city above.

OE324 member Ozziel Gaona came to the mine a little over a year ago.  Initially a temporary worker, Gaona has since become a full-time employee and spends most days operating a loader.  Transporting the newly excavated salt from the miner to the primary crusher has taken the majority of this particular morning, and he expects it will go well into the afternoon.

“I’ll run this for the first half (of the day), and then I’ll fix roads and move muck around,” explains Gaona.

Asked to describe a typical day, he laughs for a minute.

“Darkness! It’s dark down here!”

He laughs some more.  Gaona points out that without cell phone service, it is a different kind of solitude.

“It’s a different world down here.  No cell phone, no-one calling.  You really can think and be by yourself with your thoughts.”

He explains the process, next to a lunchroom deck with overhead patio lights that wouldn’t feel out of place in any bistro, bar or backyard above us.  Only we are underground and surrounded on all sides by salt walls and ceiling and hallways that lead to the dark.

“I pick up the salt from the miner and take it to the crusher.  It gets broken up and fed to the conveyor, which takes it all the way back where you came in (the mine shaft).  There, it’s crushed again, colored blue, and sent up top through a different mine shaft.”

(The Detroit Salt Company tints its salt blue to differentiate it from other locations and salts on the market).

Gaona explains how he started as an operator on a skid steer, and that the front-loader was the next step up on a path he would like to continue.

“I want to go bigger.  That’s what I want to do – learn bigger equipment and become qualified.”

Returning back to the main mine shaft is a trip that can take a while.  Each path seemingly goes on for miles.  The mine is almost completely dry (it is hundreds of feet below the rivers), the air clean and crisp, and the temperature pleasant.  The lighted spots – the fueling area, the storage and assembly area, the actual crusher – give way to the miles of pitch-black corridors.  Ventilation fans and the whirring of the conveyor keep it from being silent, but it is still a place unlike any other.

Topside, Roedel manages work around storage and delivery.  He came here in 2016, with a background in heavy equipment, and has been here for all but two years since.

“I started on the production side,” he explains, “which means I was out there in the yard loading trucks. I had previous dozer and excavator experience, so I knew how to maintain that massive pile out there.”

He gestures out the window to the mountains of blue tinted salt behind the main mine shaft.

“You have to break it down, so it’s not high walls for the guys that are loading out of it. I’ve loaded rail cars, done the maintenance on the shaft belt lines, all gearboxes, drive belts – all the belt lines on the surface. All of our loadout belts over at the boat dock do all the shaft maintenance on both shafts. Also I do the maintenance on the pumps underground, then the hoist as well.”

Roedel explains that, with so much salt coming out of the ground, there simply isn’t enough room to store it all.

“We would have to buy the Marathon (refinery) and the neighborhood just to store it”

Instead, Roedel manages a huge pile in the yard, but salt is also continuously loaded into a ship as well as onto train cars and into trucks.

“This has got to be probably one of the safest mines in the world. For one, the way we do it with the kind of continuous miner.  It’s safer than blasting or running any risk of cave-ins or collapses.

‘Also, I love the job security.  What we do is in demand, and it’s almost unlimited overtime here. I mean, it really is nothing to work 100 plus hours a week if you want it.”

“Finally, if you think about it, you’re a big part of your community. We’re mining and distributing salt everywhere to keep roads safe. That’s meaningful.”

Roedel, Gaona and the Operating Engineers at the Detroit Salt Company are among OE324’s newest members.  They unionized in 2021 and have become proud members.  Roedel had previously been in Local 150 and was a proponent of bringing the union to the salt mine.

“In the past, I’ve been in and out (of a union). I prefer to be in.”

Over at the Gordie Howe Bridge for Bridging North America, Hutchinson doesn’t hesitate to share his union pride.

“You know, we’re all proud members of Local 324. I hear it from the owner group and I hear from labor management – how happy they are with the people that we bring out here. And the apprentices, especially the apprentices. We have some really good young apprentices that have good focus and professionalism. I’m really proud of that, for sure.”

So from a perch 800 feet above the Detroit River, picking the rebar to build the newest road crossing to another country, to a salt mine crossing cutting edge techniques with decades old tradition, Operating Engineers 324 members are keeping the state of Michigan moving.

The work isn’t entirely dissimilar. The members working on each aren’t either – they are all putting in thousands of hours to make the roads better for Michigan travelers.

You can view the salt from the tower crane.  But just in case those in the crane think they get the only great views in the city, Roedel has something to say.

“We’ve had some guys get pictures of the sun coming over the salt pile, city skyline in the background.  Pretty amazing.”