A curious hum of activity can be heard all around the Sheehan Pipeline Construction right of way.
Machines of tremendous stature work hurriedly to dig the ditches and trenches that one day will house a pipe that will carry a river of oil from Alberta, Canada, to Oklahoma.
Sheehan employs 450 union workers. The workers come from all over the country. For example, contractor Jim Lovell is from Arkansas and inspector Allan Neely is from Oklahoma. The appeal of the job for Neely is that he gets to work outside and see new areas, but also that he gets to work with a diverse crew.
“It’s interesting to meet new people and exchange stories,” he said.
The 450 union workers does not include subcontractors — who run a trencher, excavator and dynamite crew — and inspectors.
Most of the workers live in Butler County while they are working on the pipeline. Even though Neely is separated from his home and family by hundreds of miles, he doesn’t regret his line of work.
“I wouldn’t do anything else,” Neely said.
The pipeline construction process is an assembly line of sorts, but instead of a conveyor belt coming to them, the workers move along the static line.
First, a crew clears the land of brush and foliage with bulldozers. The next crew smooths the right of way into a patch of dirt road and measures the grade for the coming pipe.
While they work clearing some parts of the environment, other parts are left alone and bridged over. Workers drill underneath rivers, creeks, streams, and wetlands — sometimes to their chagrin.
Seeing one stream that the crew had bridged, Lovell said, “You could jump over that stream.”
But, Lovell stated, safety and environmental protection must come first.
Neely is a Sheehan inspector who checks each section of pipe to make sure it is in “good working order.” His main concerns are safety and quality before anything else.
“Safety is number one, environmental concerns are number two, quality is third, and production is fourth,” Neely said of the hierarchy of criteria. “If it’s not safe, we don’t do it. We don’t make mistakes.”
Extraneous crews, or crews that do not fit neatly into the assembly line, perform many of the duties to maintain safety. These crews raise power lines to put them out of the reach of excavators and build fences and bridges around the right of way to keep crews away from danger and off landowner property.
For the workers, trucks bring water to each section of the line to keep everyone hydrated.
“We keep plenty of water around,” Neely said of how the crew tried to endure the summer heat. “Hydration is an important concern.”
Another example of safety seemed odd in the rugged environment — a few pieces of equipment were placed in vibrantly colored children’s pools so the implements would not leak oil or fuel onto the ground.
Although they sacrifice efficiency to promote safety, production is important to the Sheehan crews; they are competing with other crews working on the same project. The TransCanada pipeline is massive and requires the work of many companies.
The longer the job takes, the more it costs Sheehan. Some of the larger pieces of machinery use up to 100 gallons of fuel a day. Lovell said that one of Sheehan’s previous jobs cost the company $40,000 in fuel each day.
At nearly every stage of the assembly line, a large piece of construction equipment is required — bulldozers at the beginning; trenchers, excavators, and excavators with jackhammers on the end for crushing rock; a bending machine; and cranes to lower the pieces of pipe into the ground.
With the presence of heavy machinery and a ditch that descends sharply several feet into the ground, danger exists. Neely said that it is something the workers never think about.
“I don’t think it’s dangerous. Most of us have been doing this all our lives,” Neely said. “It’s kind of like bullriding — other people think it’s dangerous — it’s just second nature to us.”
The right of way has extended several miles outside of Marion County, getting rockier and harder to traverse as one heads south. But much of the heavy machinery is between Marion and Florence.
Lovell expects Sheehan to be done with construction in Marion County by September and the pipeline completed in October.
The ditches and trenches are still being dug. Bending and engineering crews follow. Crews will bend pieces of pipe to match the grade of the right of way.
Welding crews will work their way down the right of way this week. The crews use a robotic system to weld the pieces of pipe above ground. The large pipe will then be lowered in by another crew, with the assistance of a crane, and then tied together by a welder in the ditch with a hand-held stick rod.
The pipe will then be tested, followed by cleanup and seeding crews.
Although each crew is specialized to a specific task, Neely said that the job is not as repetitive as one might think. He said the difference in terrain keeps him from falling into a monotonous routine.
Lovell promises the workers will spend millions of dollars in Marion County towns.
“The guys work hard and they like to play hard too,” Lovell said.
Neely thoroughly enjoys being outside, working with his hands, and basking in the company of an interesting crew.
“It’s like living a dream,” he said.