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Operating Engineers 324 members keep the presses running

Operating Engineers 324 members keep the presses running

Spring 2024 Engineers’ News

It may seem like a math problem, but the answer is anything but: how do six Stationary Engineers, responsible for a seemingly endless list of responsibilities, keep a 700,000 square foot facility up and running on a schedule of 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year?

The answer is knowledge, adaptability, and teamwork.  Teamwork between these operating engineers and the men and women from other trades working alongside them on other tasks and teamwork between them and their direct management. Most importantly, teamwork between each member.

That is certainly a tall order, but it is exactly how the six OE324 Stationary Engineers working at the Sterling Heights Operational Facility for Gannett Publishing Services keep the presses continuing to run.  Their building is enormous, and downtime is at an absolute minimum.  But these operators are up to the task.

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The newspaper printing industry has certainly changed since this facility was originally opened in 1972.  Back then, it was known as the “North Plant,” and it was responsible for printing the Detroit News, one of the two daily papers in the Metro Detroit area.  And while many have suggested over the past few decades that the death of physical print newspapers was imminent, this operation has not only survived, it’s thrived.

“Newspapers are important to me, and it’s important they don’t go anywhere,” explains Chief Engineer and Steward William “Bill” Stoneburgh as he starts a tour of the main plant.

“They preserve history.  They are physical…they can’t be changed like things can online.”

Once the presses here only ran the Detroit News, then the News and the Detroit Free Press.  Today, dozens of newspapers utilize the facility to press their daily, weekly, or even monthly paper.  A copy of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or USA Today bought in Michigan most likely came from here.  Same for the Macomb Daily or the Oakland Press.  As smaller print houses have closed, the Sterling Heights facility has taken on more and more of the work.

“We’re probably doing 250 press runs a week, going through 13,000 metric tons of newsprint a year,” explains John Morey, Senior Regional Director for the facility.

It is easy to see why.  Those 700,000 square feet sit on 42 acres at the corner of Mound Road and 16 Mile Road.  It is the tallest building in Sterling Heights, built to accommodate rows of newspaper-hauling semi-trucks, rolled paper-delivering train cars, and then expanded in 2005 to facilitate the five-story tall state-of-the-art printing presses.  There are also insert machines, platemakers, industrial ink-jet machines, and more.

Because of the large number of papers being manufactured and distributed from there, and the immediacy of the newspaper printing industry, the facility runs all day and night.  There are morning editions, afternoon editions, weekend editions, mailers, and inserts, and all need to be printed, collated, and shipped.

Fire, Flood, or Blood

This is a facility that never sleeps.  So neither can the Operating Engineers on duty there.

“Engineers take care of all the HVAC, heating and cooling, the boilers, and all of the chillers,” explains Stoneburgh, who holds a licenses as a stationary engineer, 1st class unlimited refrigeration operator, master  plumber, and contractor.

That alone is a daunting task in a facility where this much machinery is constantly running, emitting heat.  Or in the warehouse and shipping areas, where large overhead doors let in the cold of winter or the heat of summer.  But that is only one part of what the Operators here are responsible for.

“We take care of vacuum pumps, air compressors, humidification,” he continues, explaining how important exact humidity is in a place that is putting paper through a treatment process.

He goes on.

“Then the ink pumps, RO (reverse osmosis water), and plumbing.  And we’re basically the first call for everything.

“What’s the saying – fire, flood or blood? Any of those, and they are calling us. We might hand off certain things to other departments if it’s their job. But we’re always first on the scene because, a lot of times, we’re the only ones here. We’re the only ones here 24/7. So there might be times where there’s only one engineer here to take care of everything.”

Next to him, Stationary Engineer Tim Leahy nods in agreement.  Leahy is the most senior member of the group, having worked there for 42 years.  He has seen some emergencies, like the blackout that gripped Southeast Michigan in 2003.

“It shut us down completely, and we were just on generators.  Not strong enough to run the presses, but enough to keep the lights on, anyway.”

Leahy has worked at every facility the papers have had.

“Free Press main, Free Press Riverfront, News main…the annex, and all the distribution centers. I’ve worked in all of them.  But all of that is here now.

Stoneburgh has been here for 13 years, after 12 years working at other buildings as an OE324 Stationary Engineer.

“I worked at a few hospitals and had started as a plumber with a plumber’s license. Because I had a plumber’s license, they put me in the boiler room, re-piping condensate lines. In the process, the guys are like, ‘well, you’re back here, you might as well learn this. And so they started teaching me about the boilers.”

The hands-on boiler education led Stoneburgh to take classes and eventually receive a high-pressure license.  He was now an Operating Engineer.  But that wasn’t it.

“And then they put me in charge of the chiller plant to run absorbers. So it just snowballed. The plumbing license was the foundation that I built all these other things on.”

Walking through the sprawling layout, Stoneburgh and Leahy point out the process that makes newspapers – and the many different tasks that they undertake to keep the entire place in motion.

Paper is delivered in massive rolls weighing tons.  It is moved to conveyors, which ready it for the printing process.  They maintain the climate in these massive halls where the paper is received, stores, and moved to the conveyor.

Then the printing process begins.  The presses are split in two, with an entire building worth of stations in between (the core). There are huge tanks of printing ink, each several stories tall – black, blue, yellow, and red.

Around the huge tank indicating yellow ink, there is a hue to the surrounding ground. Here, Leahy explains the potency of the ink.  A week ago, one of the pressure gauges at the tank began to leak.  They replaced the gauge and line, but the color remained – and will for some time.

“One small drop – if you get it on you, you will be entirely that color by the end of the day,” he laughs.

“It’s that concentrated.”

Here, they need to maintain not only the tanks, and pressure-controlled pumps and lines, but also the self-produced water (they treat incoming water with reverse osmosis to purify it) conditioning units, and all of the solution pumps and lines that mix the solution to the water that lubricates the presses and helps the ink adhere to the paper.

The reverse osmosis systems alone are nearly as massive as the ink tanks.  Leahy notes they are some of the largest in the state.

The treated solution water then comes back and is re-purified and separated again.

“Whatever (water and solution) is not used comes back here and we clean it up. We get any solvent back. Anything dirty goes through here and gets pumped out. Solvent comes back and separates from water, so we siphon it off and reuse it again.  We recycle everything.”

Atop the fifth-story press platform, they explain the importance of the air quality systems they run.  The constant paper leaves tiny particles in the air, and without a robust removal and air cleaning system, it would be hazardous to the papers and people working on them alike.

It is a complicated process, and one uniquely specialized to the print industry. But so are many of these responsibilities.

Everybody wears multiple hats

The six Stationary Engineers currently at this facility come from a variety of backgrounds.

“One of our apprentices, Adrian Quintero, he’s on midnights. He’s got his plumbers license but came here with no other experience. He was willing to go to school. I knew (he would learn) because he understands piping. All these systems are pipes. Everything is something moving from one area to another through a pipe. So with the base understanding he’s built he’s going to school.”

Another engineer, Josh Williams, came from working at Little Caesars Arena, and works alongside John Collins, the second longest tenured Operator at the facility.

“Everybody wears multiple hats,” explains Stoneburgh. “The big guy (Mike Brown) was working for a compressor company, and we needed somebody working on compressors. He came here with that skill set and is really good at it. So he went to school to become an operating engineer and learn refrigeration.

“So everybody comes with a core set, and they branch out. We do everything but we specialize in certain things.”

The emphasis on both education and being strong union members is important to every member of the team – and management.

“Here, the company funds it (the OE324 Stationary Education Center), and they want to fund it, because they realize they’re getting skilled employees,” explains Stoneburgh. “I’ve got three people going through the union (classes) – half of our crew.

“I did not (come through the school). I came in the back door. And I can tell you, it’s not the same. I had hands-on experience, but the formal education they get is invaluable. They’re learning everything in the order they should learn. They’re getting the broad spectrum. They’re doing tours of plants. So I really respect the union, the school is a real asset.”

Morey agrees.

“Our relationship with the union is good, very good. You guys do a good job with training. It helps with the team we’ve built.

Morey attributes the success of this group on the mix of personalities, experience, and background.

“It’s a combination of old and new thinking. Everybody plays a key role.  Everybody has an important part.”

Stoneburgh explains.

“You just avail yourself to whatever opportunity comes along, and you’ll go far in life. I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to be an operating engineer. But it’s kind of cool if you think about the history of trains and locomotives and steam engines and once you understand plumbing is water, is a liquid. Refrigeration can be water as a refrigerant and as a solid, and steam is water as a vapor. It’s all the same liquid and same concepts, pressure and temperatures.”

“Once you get your license, see how far you go,” says Leahy.

The team, older and younger, journeymen and apprentices, day shifts and midnights, all row in the same direction.  They keep this massive facility alive and running, safe and efficient.  Together, they are more than staving off the change in media – they are succeeding and growing – as a team, as a unit, and as strong members of a strong union.