BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The shaping of Limestone

DOUG SMITH August 11 1986
BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The shaping of Limestone

DOUG SMITH August 11 1986

The shaping of Limestone

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Towering above scrubby spruce trees in northern Manitoba’s rugged landscape, the 70-mhigh, manmade hill is visible from two kilometres away. Around the sides of the heaped mass of more than 400,000 cubic metres of rock, huge trucks and bulldozers shift loads of granite that are being crushed to make concrete for the Limestone hydroelectric dam. When it is fully

completed in 1992, Limestone—located on the Nelson River 90 km from Hudson Bay—will be generating 1,280 megawatts of electricity annually, making it Canada’s 10th-largest dam. But because declining oil prices have forced delays in other energy projects, Limestone holds a unique distinction: it is the largest construction job under way in Canada this year. And it is stirring excitement among workers from coast to coast. “Guys all across the country are dying to come here,” said Barry Cozac, 35, an ironworker from Calgary. “There is nothing else like it.” Attracted by the prospect of big paycheques and steady work, by last week 1,300 workers had already settled into bunkhouses at the Limestone construction camp and in the company town of Sundance, five kilometres away. They included carpenters fresh from the building of British Columbia’s $2-billion Revelstoke dam, ironworkers who reminisce about Calgary’s building boom and crane operators experienced in High Arctic oil exploration. Some, like Manitoba Hydro structures superintendent Dale Woods, who worked on the Long Spruce and Kettle dams built on the Nelson River in the 1970s, are returning to familiar territory—and

faces. Said Woods, who will likely spend the next six summers working at Limestone: “These are extremely challenging projects. I like the area, I like the way of life, I like the people.”

For the NDP government of Premier Howard Pawley, lagging activity in the construction industry has enabled Manitoba to win favorable terms from contractors. Three years ago Manitoba Hydro estimated that Limestone would cost $3 billion to build. But bids were so competitive that the price has fallen to $1.94 billion. The largest contract, for excavating the damsite and pouring concrete, was won last summer by joint-venture partners Bechtel Canada Ltd. and Japan’s giant Kumagai Gumi Co. Ltd. Their $236-million bid was the lowest of six offers.

Roger Picard, project manager for Bechtel-Kumagai, said that the consortium’s bid was low for the amount of work involved. But because there are so few heavy-construction projects under way in North America, the company has been able to hire hundreds of highly experienced workers. Efficiency, Picard added, is the only way to make money on a construction project in the 1980s. Added the 41-year-old native of Beauport, Que.: “We are bring-

ing in the most sophisticated, expensive equipment, and we have the very best men. All we can do now is make sure we get the best use out of both.”

Premier Edward Schreyer’s NDP government allowed Limestone’s preliminary construction to begin in the mid-1970s, but Premier Sterling Lyon stopped it because of shrinking hydro demand when the Conservatives came to power in 1977. Construction started again last fall under the Pawley government, after the Manitoba Energy Authority signed a $3.2-billion, 12-year agreement to sell z up to 500 megawatts of Lime-

0 stone’s output to the Minneapolis lis-based Northern States Pow? er Commission.

Still, Manitoba’s opposition

1 Conservatives say that because 9 Limestone will begin generatE ing power in 1990—two years

before the contract takes effeet—Manitoba Hydro’s cus-

But spokesmen for the Pawley government—which was re-elected in March, 1985, partly on the strength of its commitment to Limestone—say that the project will be profitable. Limestone will create 6,000 personyears of direct employment and another 17,000 person-years in support industries. And the power contract with Minnesota, officials say, will net a total profit of $1.7 billion.

pay year in interest charges on funds borrowed to build the dam. And some economists have criticized the policy of spending money to increase exports of energy—and indirectly create jobs in the United States—instead of developing Manitoba’s industrial sector.

For Bechtel management and the workers on the Limestone site, there are more immediate concerns. They are hurrying to reach the current season’s goal of pouring 190,000 cubic tons of concrete before the onset of winter in mid-October shuts down operations until next spring. According to Bechtel’s Picard, work was slowed by a colder than usual spring. “But now everything is falling into place,” he said.

At the same time, Manitoba Hydro has made determined efforts to create first-class living and working conditions. At the main campsite, about 1,200 workers live in 40 prefab bunkhouses. The company town of Sundance has trailer-lot accommodation for about 280 married workers and their families. The two recreation centres at the main campsite—there is a third at Sundance—include television rooms, a library, weights, a billiard room, hockey and curling rinks and a baseball diamond. “This is a pretty damn good camp,” said William Liston, site representative for the Allied

Hydro Council, an association of trade unions involved in the building of Limestone. “When I went to my first camp in 1953 up in Kitimat, B.C., we were living in tents. We have come a long way.” Added William Beaton, a crane operator from Winnipeg: “This is a fantastic job—the best camp I’ve ever been in.”

The buildup of the Limestone workforce, which is expected to climb to a total of 1,800 in the peak construction years of 1987-88, has reunited a special breed—engineers and skilled tradesmen who have labored together on previous dam projects in Canada. One veteran dam builder is Stephen Wight, a 71-year-old carpenter who will be at the site all summer designing and building the curved wooden forms used to cast the giant concrete draft tubes that will carry water from the dam’s turbines downstream into the Nelson River. Proud of his unusual skill, Wight said, “There are not many people who can do it.” He was also pleased when he discovered that Winnipeg’s Hugo Erhardt would be in charge of Limestone’s carpentry shop. “He’s about the best you’ll run into anywhere,” said Wight. He added, “Pretty near half the force in the carpentry shop I’ve worked with elsewhere.”

Because of the abbreviated 6V2month northern working season, the dam workers have been put on ninehour shifts that continue through the night under floodlights. At night the site resembles a vast movie set. Laborers and tradesmen work six days a week for 40 to 45 days before becoming eligible for a free flight from Gillam, Man.—50 km from the campsite—to their point of hire for six working days off.

But while the hours are long, the rewards can be considerable. Wages range from $13.40 an hour for heavyconstruction laborers to $17.88 an hour for ironworkers or $20.29 for pipe fitters. Calgary’s Barry Cozac calculates that with overtime he stands to earn as much as $1,100 a week. “If you’re careful,” said Cozac, “you can afford to never work again in winter for the rest of your life.”

Camp life does have its inconveniences. Two months ago there were only five pay telephones available for workers at the main campsite—now there are 10. And men and women— even if they are married—must stay in separate quarters if they live at the main camp. “There’s too much segregation,” said Michael Ontonovich, a bearded ironworker from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. “If you get caught with a woman in your room, you are out of the camp.” But others express satisfaction with the arrangements. Said Bernard Potocki, a carpenter from British Columbia: “This is not Love Boat. It’s a production centre—but not for the next generation.”

To ensure that northern Manitoba native people share in Limestone’s rewards, the collective agreement between the unions, the contractors and the provincial government established hiring goals for various job categories. As many as 40 per cent of laborers, 60 per cent of apprentices and 30 per cent of some skilled categories must be natives. But last May Hydro chairman Marc Elieson caused a wave of complaints when he announced that with natives comprising about 35 per cent of Limestone’s unionized workforce, hiring goals in many job categories—including laborers and caterers—were being suspended for four months. Yvon Dumont, co-chairman of the Limestone Aboriginal Partnership Directorship Board, charged that Hydro was attempting to slip out of its commitment to native workers. The most recent figures show that as of June 30, natives made up 22 per cent of the workforce.

Still, the government has already improved on its record of the 1970s, when less than 10 per cent of the workforce on the province’s dam projects, such as Jenpeg and Kettle on the Nelson River, were natives. Preferential treatment for native entrepreneurs has resulted in the opening of a native-operated post office, grocery and liquor store in Sundance. At the main campsite, security guards wear distinctive badges depicting a yellow rising sun—the emblem of Wapun Security, a firm owned by five northern Manitoba Indian bands in partnership with the Saskatchewan Indian and Native Peoples Corp.

To supply native workers with the needed skills, last summer the government set up a training camp at an abandoned Inco Ltd. strip mine at Pipe Lake, 30 km west of Thompson, Man. Nearly 1,000 natives have graduated from the camp with skills ranging from carpentry to machine maintenance. To instil the discipline needed to work at Limestone, life at the Pipe Lake camp is strictly regulated, with an 11.30 p.m. curfew and a total ban on alcohol.

The tough training appears to be effective, with both natives and non-natives praising its effectiveness. Native workers at Limestone, said Thomas Cummins, labor relations officer for Bechtel-Kumagai, seem “to have more staying power; they don’t seem to be dropping out of the workforce as much as in the past.” Les Cook, a Métis from Thompson, described the Limestone training program as nothing less than an opportunity to “join the human race, to join the flow of economic life.” Indeed, for many Canadian workers, a job at the Limestone dam in Manitoba’s inhospitable north is highly cherished.

DOUG SMITH

in Sundance

with

MARK NICHOLS

in Toronto