|Indiana Local, Travelers Tackle
BP Refinery Modernization
No project is without its challenges. But, at a time of agonizingly slow construction starts, it is exceedingly rare for contractors to have to worry about having enough hotel rooms or parking spaces to accommodate a huge influx of building trade workers.
But that is the situation facing BP and several general contractors leading the $4 billion Whiting Refinery Modernization Project in Indiana, where new machinery will process oil from the tar sands of Western Canada.
Currently 10,000 building trades members are on the job. Three to four hundred more are being hired weekly, with the total expected to peak at 14,000.
"This is a huge challenge," said Ray Kasmark, business manager of Gary and Hammond, Ind., Local 697. Whiting, on the site of the former Standard Oil of Indiana, is the fourth largest refinery in the country, processing 405,000 barrels a day of crude oil. The modernization project is designed to progress side-by-side the plant's continuing operation. "We have 800 electricians on the job and expect to peak at 1,100."
BP, says Kasmark, has been a steady customer of Local 697 for years in both construction and maintenance. Local 697 members spoke in favor of the project at permitting hearings, countering opposition from environmentalists.
The modernization project, expected to be completed in 2013, consists of five phases and has been in the works for three years.
More than 80 percent of the crude oil traditionally refined at Whiting has been "sweet" or relatively low in sulfur, from the oil fields of West Texas, Oklahoma and other foreign nations. The modernization project will enable BP to handle a mix of 80 percent "sour," or high-sulfur crude oil, predominantly coming from the oil fields of Canada. The total output of the refinery is expected to increase by 15 percent over the current capacity after modernization.
Employment in Local 697 has grown to 170 percent, with travelers arriving almost weekly. The modernization project is considered a "yellow card" (all union trade) project, covered by the National Maintenance Agreement. The NMA, established in 1971, is a tripartite agreement between owners, contractors and craft unions that ensures on-schedule performance with no workplace disruptions, flexible practices and a dispute-resolution process.
While the modernization was delayed for nearly two years due to engineering gaps and the April 2010 explosion of the company's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling facility in the Gulf of Mexico, some of the time lost is being recovered through the massive infusion of boots on the ground.
Mark Erickson, a 15-year Local 697 journeyman inside wireman, had been unemployed for five months before he got called by Meade Electric in February 2011 to work on the modernization project.
"One of the greatest things about this job is putting a couple hundred travelers to work," said Erickson, who previously worked on electrical installations in steel mills and commercial projects. "It's great to see our hall be a walk-through for electricians from as close as Chicago and Detroit, and as far as Arizona and Texas who were starving for work."
Erickson says while the work is similar to any big commercial job, "the scope of this project is unbelievable." Coordinating work with thousands of other workers can be challenging and traffic jams after work resemble those from the steel mills of yesterday.
"The site looks like a giant erector set, with cranes everywhere you turn," says Erickson. For two years, he says, contractors have been bringing in three or four modular units a day for offices and other structures.
BP has leased land from the nearby Arcelor Mittal steel mill for employee parking. Large tents with flooring — some accommodating 900 workers — have been set up to house tool lockers and tables for lunch breaks. Even finding a location for the tents and eating facilities were complicated by regulations that followed the 2005 explosion at BP's refinery in Texas City, Texas. The regulations prohibit workers from eating or sleeping in a potential blast zone.
In advance of the project, IBEW members from Indianapolis Local 1393 relocated transmission lines that would have obstructed a new heavy-haul route to carry mammoth equipment for the modernization project from vessels on Lake Michigan to the work site at the southern tip of the lake. Some Local 1393 members continue to work on transmission and distribution within the plant.
Curt Hillegonds, a 34-year member and first-time steward on one of the five modernization projects, will soon be conducting Code of Excellence training for his crews, currently numbering 20 and expected to reach 250. Hillegonds, one of eight stewards on the project, whose crew is working five nine-hour shifts and eight hours on Saturdays, says, "After being in construction for so many years, I'm finding out that I still didn't know all the intricacies of some of our union rules."
BP's vigilance on safety on the modernization project, adds Hillegonds, far exceeds steps taken during his years working as an electrician in the area's steel mills. Kasmark credits stewards Joe Gonzales, Randall Hepp, Dwight Murdoch, Arnell Washington, Tim Weems, Eric Wheeler and Dave Ziegler with helping bolster safety and professionalism on the job.
Tom Keilman, BP's director of government and public affairs, says, "The important thing is to modernize this plant in a way that is safe for BP employees, the building trades, the contractors and the surrounding community." Past planned maintenance outages at the refinery usually resulted in 1,000 to 2,000 building trades members coming on site. "Logistics and safely bringing in components from all over the world are the biggest challenges," says Keilman.
Says International President Edwin D. Hill, "BP's Whiting Refinery Modernization project offers dramatic proof that organized building trades workers are the best qualified to safely and productively tackle the rebuilding of North America's infrastructure. Just as important is the financial contribution of signatory employers and our members to the survival of local communities."