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Co-operation is Key in $4 Billion Upgrade of World-Class BC Aluminum Smelter

Aluminum is the industry that has powered the town of Kitimat, British Columbia, for almost 60 years. But the Rio Tinto smelter, featured in National Geographic magazine as the largest in the world when it was built, was due for an upgrade. The Kitimat Modernization Project (KMP) began in 2011 and was completed in July 2015 when the first hot metal was produced at the $4 billion project.

The Rio Tinto smelter will see a 48% increase of aluminum production, doubling to 425,000 metric tonnes per year. During construction 9,791 people worked on site, peaking at 4,000 at one time. The 23 million hour worked project was 99% Canadian, with 1% from the USA. 23-25% of the crews were apprentices.

International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Lodge 359 supplied over 300 tradesmen and apprentices during the construction of KMP and at the revamp of the Power Plant, Kemano.

CIMS Ltd, Bantrel Corp. and HB Construction Company Ltd were among the local firms hired as sub-contractors by San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation, the general contractor. When these companies went looking for skilled trades, one of the first calls they made was to the Boilermakers.

For the Boilermakers, it was back to the future – they built both the smelter and power plant in the 1950s. Now they were back as a key trade in the $4 billion upgrade project.
“We had Boilermakers from 22 to 55 years old, we had the apprentices working with the experienced journeymen, teaching the younger crew members the tricks of the trade,” says HB General Foreman Chris Matheson.

“We had challenges. But the Boilermakers and Bantrel came together to get the job done for our client, which is what this is all about.” noted Ken Stenfanson, a Boilermaker General Foreman for Bantrel. “We had a crew that was focused on safety. We had a lot of heavy lifts that required team work. Heavy objects were lined up correctly because we had people that had the skills to do the job.”

Boilermakers at the Kitimat upgrade installed more than two kilometres of ductwork used to carry waste gases to pollution control systems which will effectively halve the smelter’s overall emissions. They’ve lifted complex ducting components and vessels, weighing up to 146 metric tonnes, into precise position.

“Most of the ducting installations were unique, with some difficult runs that allowed the Boilermakers to shine with their layout talents,” said Neil Biddlecomb, a 40-plus-year member of the Boilermakers and the General Superintendent for CIMS. “Their organizational skills and experience shined.”

“We have an excellent crew of Boilermakers here. We installed two kilometres of ductwork, each piece had a unique shape, size and weight creating a different center of gravity. With proper planning and teamwork we got the job done.” said Brent Pennington, Boilermaker steward for the Bantrel crew.

Thirty-year member J’onn Giese worked for CIMS and noted that “the Boilermakers’ safety record was great – the job was enjoyable and we got along great with the other trades. We have the same view: let’s get the client their smelter. We had hurdles we had to clear, but we did it,” he said. “One reason for that was the good management we had. They worked to get us what we needed to do the job.”
Mike Young, the steward for the HB Boilermakers, said it was a “very good crew, everyone looked forward to going to work each day to do the big lifts. And it has been a real joy working side by side with the other trades, everyone just wanting to do a good job each day.”

The teamwork shown by the affiliated unions will allow Rio Tinto to pay off their $4 billion investment in only 7 years. The contractors, boilermakers and the others affiliated unions put together a best practices list for future investments in BC – this is the kind of cooperation that will power the resource economy of BC into the future.