Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
As members of a crew from Michels Construction of Brownsville, Wisc., await results of a test done on a welded pipe seam, they're visited by two dogs who have been coming around the site since the beginning of the week.
“We gave them doughnuts one day and they just keep coming back,” one crewmember joked.
As a result, the pair has been adopted by the men, who've traveled from throughout the country to help install a 485-mile long crude oil pipeline that comprises the TransCanada Gulf Coast Project. The line begins in Cushing, Okla., and terminates outside Port Arthur.
Ultimately, it will allow oil to be delivered from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf coast, said Jim Prescott, a senior public affairs and communications management consultant working with Keystone Project, of which the Gulf Coast Project is a component.
The Gulf Coast Project is divided into three sections, or "spreads": The first runs from Cushing, across the Texas state line into Delta County, 185.55 miles in length.
Spread Two, which picks up in Delta County and runs to Angelina County, to a site just south of Diboll, runs 186.15 miles, and crosses briefly through eastern Cherokee County at two points.
The final spread, at 112.07 miles, runs from Angelina County to the coast.
By creating these spreads, “we can build (the pipeline in different areas) simultaneously and the project will go more quickly,” Prescott said, adding that the project could be completed in approximately 12 months, “versus three years straight.”
“We'll save significant time and cost building the pipeline this way,” he said.
Some 700 workers, comprising 40 different crews, work 10-hour shifts six days a week to get the project completed. For this segment of the project, they will be based out of Jacksonville, located roughly halfway between start and terminal points.
“They're moving a mile or so a day,” Prescott said of the crews' progress as they perform a variety of jobs that go with stringing the pipe. “It's a labor-intensive project.”
And it's one that faced some challenges from the federal government.
Because the oil was to be piped into the country from Canada, the U.S. State Department was involved, ensuring that numerous regulations were met before a presidential permit could be issued.
Initially, the project encompassed both the northern and southern routes of the international pipeline, but the permit was denied. However, upon reconsideration, TransCanada – which provides the delivery system, in this case, the pipeline – broke the Keystone Project into two components.
“They looked at other options from regulatory, construction and commercial perspectives, and in March of this year, they said they would de-couple Keystone XL project to approach it in two parts,” Prescott ex-plained.
The southern portion, “the Gulf Coast project, is what we are building today. We don't need a presidential permit from a regulatory standpoint to build since (the pipeline) doesn't cross an international borders,” he said. “Once we had the last permit that we needed for construction, that's when we started.”
Meanwhile, he added, the completed sections in the northern end of the country “have delivered 300 million barrels of oil already” from Hardesty, Alberta, to sites in Illinois and Nebraska.
The Oklahoma site will serve as a link to the northern and southern routes of the pipeline, using pump stations along the way to help move the oil.
In East Texas, pump houses will be located Winnsboro and Lufkin.
Meanwhile, crews have cleared sites along the pipeline's route, 80 percent of which follow existing routes, according to Prescott.
“Pipeline routing is much more complicated than drawing lines on the map, (however) most of the (new) lines parallel existing pipeline,” he said.
Forty-foot lengths of pipe that are 36 inches in diameter and purchased from a Lufkin pipe-yard are welded together two at a time to create 80-foot sections that will be linked on site.
What appears to be short segments of algebraic equations to the untrained eye is actually code that tells crew members a variety of information, such as the thickness of the pipe's walls (it varies from about ½- to ¾-inch), who welded pieces together, even how at a certain spot, how much pipe will have run from Cushing.
“It's like a roadmap for workers,” said construction manager Wayne Knox.
Pipes are pulled through a bending ma-chine to contour them to the lay of the land, with each pull shaping the piece by half a degree.
“We have engineers walking through here taking shots, marking on the pipe where it needs to be bent and by how many degrees,” explained Javier Garcia, the project's lowering-in crew foreman from Mission.
Welded sections are examined by an X-ray machine to ensure that there are no flaws in the work.
If one is detected, work comes to a halt while the welding pro-cess starts anew and that work is checked.
“If 100 percent of safety specs aren't met during a project, we'll put everything on hold,” Prescott said. “The standards are high, from a technical perspective.”
At a recent site visit, crew members prepared to lay an 1,800-foot section of the pipeline using “cradles” attached to construction side boom machines. These cradles looped around the bottom of the pipe, helping ease the piece into the growd.
“When most people see the pipe being lowered, they think it's pretty cool,” Prescott said, describing how it takes several booms for a job that employs gravity to do the actual lowering of the pipe, which is buried a minimum of four feet underground.
However, before this step can be executed, a crew member wielding a long stick-looking instrument with a coil attached to one end walks alongside the pipe, ahead of the machinery, monitoring the integrity of the fusion bond epoxy that coat the pipe.
Some 2,500 volts of energy is shot through the contraption, called a holiday detector, and detects anomalies in the seal. If one is found, work is halted while the spot is targeted, then covered with a bright blue patch of the expoxy, then dried with a hand-held heat machine.
When work on the Gulf Coast Project is completed, oil will be pushed the pipeline at a rate of approximately five miles an hour, Prescott said.
Until then, though, there are the occasional delays that make the job seem to take longer than the team prefers, like the weld that needed to be redone the morning visitors were at the site outside Starrville, in northern Smith County.
But, encouraged by a reporter, Garcia de-scribed some of the things they've seen at the different job sites he's been on, like finding livestock – deer, cows, even dogs – stranded in ditches meant for pipeline, unable to get out without human help.
The most memorable animal found? The bull that no one was eager to get too near.
“He was a big bull!” Garcia said.