Sunday, November 5, 2017
Alaska Pipeline Story #2
It was the holidays. Some us had to work. And work meant being some 800-miles away from home. Pumping crude oil doesn’t take a break! Now normally, come a day like Thanksgiving or Christmas and unless for an emergency critical situation, things are pretty quiet around the pump stations. Not true with the kitchen crew over at the camp. It was not unusual to have activities around the clock in preparation for yet another feast. They don’t employ cooks out here, just real “chefs”! This had been the norm for several years now. How come that saying, “that all good things must come to an end” holds so true? With some most recent management changes, we ended up getting a district manager that thought we were all a bunch of lazy high paid cry-babies. He soon acquired the nickname, “His Majesty’s Lard Ass”. Sure we made good money. And working a holiday meant triple time wages. That included an inflated wage for the day before and the day after. And sure we complained when in efforts to save money the head nutritional intuitionalist - a townie - switched to cheaper hotdogs. But who wants to knowingly eat rat hair? So one Thanksgiving morning, when in fact everybody was about to have a slow day, this new manager initiates a work order to send a pig through the pipeline. Of course, he did it from the comfort of his home way back in Anchorage. He was at home with his family! Pigs are used to clean the wax off of the pipeline’s inner walls. It has to do with efficiency. The more wax buildup, the more horsepower it takes to pump a given amount of oil over the mountain peaks to Valdez. Now this isn’t a big deal - launching a pig - just a messy ordeal. We got too thinking. What if we didn’t send a pig? According to our local engineer, there was no immediate need for such a gyration as his calculations indicated that the efficiency standards were being surpassed. So what if we could fake the launch switch to think a “pig out” was initiated. Hey, then we could go “pig out”. So over brewed coffee we brewed up the scheme. We talked to the electrician. Everybody was all for it. The pump station operator called the main pipeline controller in Valdez to inform that the station was ready to launch. The OK was given. We went through the motions of switching the appropriate 48-inch valves, then at the precise moment, the electrician shorted out the switch to send a launch signal to the computer that would send that signal all the way to Valdez. That is where the pipeline controllers would begin a timer that would in effect monitor the travel of the 4000-pound beast along the line. Pigs had a nickname, Alex - in honor of the pipeline’s superintendent. Alex was big. In fact he also had a nickname, “Two Chairs”. He was an alright guy, just don’t cross him. Now the plan would work only if it could be coordinated with the guys down the line. Pipeline workers stick together. See, there exists a pig launcher and a pig receiver at several of the pumping stations. The guy at the 4th station down the line would have to fake the “pig in” switch at the precise time. All went without a hitch. We didn’t even get our hands dirty. Hey, what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. What we had accomplished with the pig “faking” was indeed due to our understanding of the operation and equipment. Now pigs are nothing to mess around with, as there exists some pretty good momentum behind that head of oil – at 1000-pounds of pressure. One time, the pig wasn’t sent to the receiver at the precise moment. Instead of being diverted, it ended up in the suction piping of the main pumps. It physically bent 1-inch cold rolled steel bars designed to prevent a pig from entering the system. When caught, these things are no match for the flowing oil and self-destruction is imminent. The strainers upstream of the pumps catch all the shrapnel and debris. So don’t mess with pigs and don’t mess with the workers – especially on a holiday! Right when we were heading to the chow hall to grab a piece of pie, we get another call to run another pig. From the same idiot sitting comfortably back at home. Supposedly, he didn’t see the results he was hoping for. Why? Everything was OK. That is why we employ engineers at each location. Guys that know pipeline dynamics. Our supervisor said that this jerk was behaving this way because he could not stand the thought that we were all sitting around watching football and “pigging” out. We were. Hey, even the drilling rig crews take a break on the holidays – unless an emergency. As we were pulled away from our duties - TV and pie - it pissed us off. So it was decided amongst a chosen few that we would just fake another pig launch. And as before, we went thorough the gyrations that simulated an actual launch. It was back to pie and football! Well come about midnight, all hell broke loose. The “ghost” pig did not show up at the 4th station down the pipeline. Damn, we forgot to call ahead about our plan of attack. Maybe too much food was to blame. Regardless, this was not good by any stretch of the imagination. The next day, which was supposed to be an extended holiday weekend for the townies, it was panic from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay. Oil spill reconnaissance was in effect. The command center in Anchorage was powered up, which meant all the high rollers of management – including the president – had adjourned away from the comfort of their homes. Something stuck in the pipeline can mean serious business, especially if it requires a bypass operation. Believe it or not, at one point, they honestly accused us of not putting a pig in the line. But like was said before, we stick together out here. When one of the line surveyors heard the rumor that we were suspects, he told the chief civil engineer that one of the check valves about 60-miles south indicated a stuck gate – like a blockage. It meant the “ghost” pig was stuck at that point in the pipeline. And like mentioned before, if a pig was stuck, it was in the self-destruct mode. We had nothing to sweat, as by now the belief all around was a “stuck” pig at that check-valve, which really wasn’t all that bad an ordeal. It has happened before when the clapper on the valve fails. Soon “His Majesty’s Lard Ass” shows up with “Fat Alex”. We need more chairs! Being in the clear, we couldn’t help not laughing. So after about two days of panic, it was written off as a destroyed pig. The only other problem we had to contend with? The inventory showed one too many pigs! How in hell were we going to get rid of a “hog” out here on the tundra? No problem, as one guy needed a flowerpot for his cabin outside of Fairbanks. It was a done deal. Hey, we own the roads up here. Nobody questions what really goes on up and down this pipeline – just to remote. And remember, we feed the regulators! By the beginning of the week, which was the end of our workweek, we were heading home, delayed a day because of the “missing” pig. It meant free booze on the company. And what a paycheck for our shenanigans! We never had to worry about launching another holiday pig, unless it was a scheduled event. And Lard Ass found it difficult to talk his way out of why he initiated the work order in the first place. When he admitted to the president that he felt the workers were not very productive, a phone went flying across the room at the command center. See that was the company president’s indication that he was pissed off. The president made it clear and convincing that he didn’t give a rat’s ass if the crews sat around for ever, as long as they were running when the shit hits the fan! As long as throughput met the daily target, they were doing the job they were paid for. Managers learn early on that their survival depends on us. They learn early on to respect us. And we don’t need a union!
Posted by Green Mountain Boy at 5:49 PM