Miscellaneous Field Stories

1) Quirk ESD

I was out at the Imperial Oil Quirk Creek Gas Plant at about the time they were replacing their old control system with Series 20 Provox, around 1990. There was much work to do by contractors since there would be new loops to control and new points to monitor. I was watching two electricians feed some wires from the ceiling down through a metal conduit and then to a cabinet on the other side of the control room wall. They were doing this to install a fluorescent fixture as part of the emergency lighting system. Shining a flashlight from top to bottom they verified that the conduit went straight through and there was nothing in the way.
The metal fish tape they were using was about half way down the wall when all of a sudden the lights went off, emergency lights went on, horns started blaring, and there was a loud rumble and the windows started shaking. I was new to this part of process so I didn't know what the hell was going on. It was pretty scary. Operators were scrambling, coffee was being spilled and there was lots of chatter on the radio system. The board operator ran to the window and looked out at the flare stack, and sure enough, the plant had performed an ESD (emergency shut down) and all the gas in the plant was routed to the flare for safety reasons. The 30" flare line ran right beside the control room, hence the vibration.
Immediately they stopped all work to investigate what had happened and the electricians were implicated because of the sequence of events. It was revealed that their fish tape did not go on a straight line path through unbroken conduit: there was a small square box half way down and the tape curled out of this box. Then it touched an open panel with the emergency power controls located within. One short circuit and the whole place went down. When the electricians shined their flashlight down the pipe, light, which travels in straight lines, just kept going right through the box with little dispersion. Had the electricians gone around into the other room, they may have noticed the open square box.
The simple act of installing a $50 fluorescent fixture created an environmental event, cost thousands of dollars in lost product, loss production, and time loss due to the shutdown of the work while the investigation was under way.

2) Esso tall stack climbing

I was at another Imperial Oil gas plant north of Grande Prairie for a turnaround. There were something like 300 contractors there and because we were far away from any big town, the food was brought in for us. I remember one day when a half-ton truck backed up to the outside eating area with the back box FULL to the top with large pizzas! How many times will you ever see something like that in your life?
While enjoying our (cold) pizza, our attention was drawn to the exceedingly tall flare stack on the edge of the property which we were told was 350 feet tall. The lay of the land and the prevailing winds required this tall stack so that the burned gases could be dissipated high in the atmosphere, and not sit in the valley and cause an inversion. The stack at Quirk Creek was only about 100 feet high, if that, because that plant was in the foothills and the stack was on a hill.

Flare Stack
flare stack

Ready to Climb
Today 3 men were going to climb that stack via the attached ladder on the side. A helicopter was going to come in to place something on top of the stack, either a lightning rod, or another pilot light ignitor and the guys had to be up there to bolt it on. It was a very dangerous job for a couple reasons. First, the guys were climbing without a cage around the ladder, as is common for many stacks, although they were attached with a safety harness. Second, there is danger that the pilot of the chopper might get too close or sway too much and possibly hit the top of the stack or knock the guys off! And third of course, is the wash from the helicopter creates a big downdraft wind that makes it difficult to do any precise work and could cause workers to lose their helmets or tools.

Chopper installing new parts
It was a slow process climbing that stack. I believe it took them each almost an hour to get to the top, and they all climbed one after the other about 30 feet apart. Finally they made it and radioed in that they were ready. The chopper  came in, the guys put the piece in, and that was it; ¦they started back down.
I climbed a few 120 foot towers in my work at Dow Chemical, when I was young and in shape and boy, that's a long haul. I had the opportunity to rest because there was an outside cage I could lean against when I got tired.

Lighting flare with a flare gun

It was a strange sight. I was at a small gas producing plant in the middle of the bush north of Grande Prairie. On site was a flare stack to accept and burn the gas in an emergency shutdown. In order to burn this gas the pilot light at the top had to be kept lit, and very often it was blown out by the wind. This stack, like most flare stacks did NOT have a ladder up the side, because really, no one should be climbing a flare stack anyway. There's very little need to. And you wouldn't want to be at the top with your little Bic lighter trying to light a pilot light that consumes enough gas to heat your house in one second, or to blast a Space Shuttle into space. So how did they do it? Many places of course have piezo-electric or similar spark generators that light the pilot. This place had nothing. When the flame went out, the operator went out to a small shack under the stack, and pulled out a flare pistol and shot the flare at the top of the stack! How crude I thought, since the first 2 times he missed. On the third try, the pilot came to life.
When I asked the operator about this he admitted it was a crude way of doing it, and when there was wind, it could take 10 attempts to light this fire. Also, the flares would often go astray and start fires in the bush!

Noranda Mines, New Brunswick

In 1998 during the Y2K panic, Noranda Mines in New Brunswick wanted to do a field test of their Provox system, ie do the test on THEIR system. No matter that Spartan had a test bed where we did much testing on every piece of Provox equipment, or that Emerson (then Fisher Controls) had done or were doing the same thing. Noranda wanted to be sure. They tried to get someone from Fisher up there but for unknown reasons it didn't happen, maybe cost or availability of manpower. They tried the reps closest to them, the one in Quebec (where Noranda had its head office), then Ontario. No takers, so they called Spartan. Bill Elliott got the call then had to decide/coerce someone into going all across Canada on Thanksgiving weekend to do these tests over a 10 day period. His final words to me were, "There's nobody else". To me it wasn't a big deal and I wasn’t trying to weasel out of the job, just trying to get others who may be more suited for the job. (As it turned out, since I ran the Y2K test bed, I was that guy).
I flew to Bathurst, N.B. and the next day went to the mine about an hours drive into the bush, to get oriented. I met with the chief engineer, a young guy from Montreal, and also met the Allen Bradley rep who would do similar testing.
We started about 5 days before the actual test which would occur on the Thanksgiving weekend itself, possibly because they could send their men home and not pay double time and a half to have them there on a stat holiday. All testing would be done when there was no one downstairs (3600 feet below the surface). I had very little to do but worked in the same office as Michele, the engineer, discussing the methodology. Our Y2K test at Spartan was more involved than the testing he wanted, but he was the boss so I created a test sheet that was integrated into his, for testing the Provox system.
Because I was so bored, I asked for a tour and got not one, but three! The first two were of the surface mine equipment and the third was below ground. It was interesting seeing the large conveyor belts loaded with ore, feeding into the big circular ball mill. Talk about noise, and dust! They operated safely however so all safety equipment was provided if we didn't have our own. This mine processed lead, copper and zinc in the ore body underground. I got to see the end products and was allowed to take some samples back with me. I still have them somewhere around the house.

Finally the day of the test came. One of my first tests was to power down a Provox console, simulating a power loss. They had redundant consoles and the console itself had no controls in it so even if they lost BOTH consoles, it shouldn't affect the process since consoles were just "windows" into the process. When I approached the operator he was reluctant and scared, most likely because he didn't know his job that well and didn't know how to recover "if" something happened. I assured him nothing, absolutely nothing would happen, since we simulated this on our test bed. Plus I've powered down many consoles before this with no effect. I hit the switch and the shit hit the fan! Lights started flashing and horns were blaring and people were scrambling like rats on a sinking ship. The operator looked me in the eye, ranting and raving, "This always f***ing happens. You f***ing bastards do this every time". If this had been my first year at Spartan I might have peed my pants, but I knew what I did was not the cause of the process upset and I just laughed and told him this. He didn't believe me. When they got the plant lined out again I told him I would prove it by now shutting down the other console. He just shook his head, he was still pissed. I shut the console down and as predicted, nothing happened. Everything continued to work. When I was satisfied all was okay, I booted the unit up again. "See", I said to the operator. All I got was a grumble for a reply.
I continued with my testing and all tests passed as required. When I met with Michele later on to discuss the results, he admitted that he was in the MCC at the time, backed up and his rear hit a breaker that shut down part of the plant! Heh heh. This is what happened at precisely the time I knocked the first console down. It was especially funny that it happened to the "boss" and not one of us low-life contractors! Michele mentioned it again and went into more details at our celebratory dinner.

Elevator to hell
I was there for 5 days previous to testing, 2 days of testing, then 2-3 days of follow-up. The most exciting part of my job, barring the first console shutdown having the operators scream at me, was going underground. We went with the safety guy because only certain people were allowed underground because of training required. We had to wear special hardhat, breathing apparatus and battery operated light and had to take a little crash course on where we going and what we were going to see. We descended to the bottom of the 1125 meter-deep mine in a huge elevator with about 50 minors in it, ready to go to work for the next shift.
All the way down there was water leaking out of cracks in the rock. Down at the bottom there was a small river and lake that was continuously being pumped out.
We hopped on one of those "mole-type" cars, very low slung electric vehicles that moved in the tunnels like moles. To avoid collisions there was a system of doors that could be opened if the light was green, or we had to wait if it was red. The doors were required to keep the ventilation going where it should be because there was some equipment down there that used propane, not electricity, and the workers had to breathe. Having the doors reduced the large airflow requirement.
The safety guy was down there because the workers heard "cracking noises" in the rock above. He said this was normal because there is lots of weight up there being relieved by all these tunnels. We then went on to see a couple tunnels that had actually collapsed! So the fear was real. In this case, the safety guy said it was "alright", the roof wouldn't collapse on the workers. I don't know how he made that determination, and coming from a young guy of maybe 25, I wasn't too sure if I trusted his judgement, despite putting my life in his hands now! Blowing "shot-creet" onto ceiling of mine shaft to keep rocks from falling down.
When he and the PLC guy went for a ride out into one of the shafts, I told him I would stay back, I wanted to "see what it felt like in the dark". As soon as they were out of sight, I turned my lamp off, and as advertised, I could not see the hand in front of my face. There was not one lumen of light anywhere at my location. Then I started to walk, pretending I was trapped in the mine and had to find a way out. Despite having a wall to touch to guide me, I tripped on the first boulder. End of experiment.

Diavik Diamond Mine, NWT

I went up to Diavik with Gord Kelly from our Edmonton office, to do a power and ground survey. I didn't know that the mine was built on the Canadian Shield, a bunch of rock where there is no earth! Despite that discovery later on in the job, we completed the task in about 5 days.

Diavik Dining Room
The Diavik camp where we stayed was better than a 4 star hotel. The accommodations were first rate (small room, but all the amenities, private shower), and the food and entertainment areas were beyond belief. It was definitely the highlight of my day to finish work and go eat. They had 3 chefs that would create 3 different types of meals per dinner, for example, Italian, Chinese, Barbecue. The next day it was different again. A big center island had pop, juice, and milk machines where you took what you wanted, when you wanted. At each end you could have your choice of about 10 different types of ice cream.

Rec Room
There were 2 rooms with big screen TVs in them, one for smokers, one for non. The room with the pool tables had a popcorn machine and soda-pop vendor. For exercise room, every piece of equipment was there, they had a running track and full gymnasium where the guys were playing basketball.
Diavik was the most gruelling job I've ever been on, even worse than the uranium mine in Northern Saskatchewan. It didn't help that the MCC (motor control centers) were mostly located on the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors and the control room on the 4th floor. There was an elevator, but it was at one end of the huge processing building and walking there and back with all the equipment we had was deemed too tedious. So we walked up and down the stairs instead. It was gruelling because of the stairs and the huge buildings, typical of ore processing.

Long corridor
long corridor
From the central camp we could walk to any of the other buildings (processing, power house, machine shop, etc) through thermodors (I think that's what they were called), long long corridors that also carried pipes and wires between the buildings, and heated all the way. You could walk to any building without a parka. These things were about 800 feet long in my estimation. At the end of the day they felt like they were 5000 feet long. We were not allowed to take a lunch with us in a truck. The rules were such that no food or scraps was to be made available to the environment because they didn't want to attract animals. We did see a red fox but he didn't want my apple. (I'm kidding…). For lunch we ordered the day before and it was ready the next morning with our name on the bag. We had the option to walk back to camp every day, but that was too long a haul and we'd have to protect the equipment from theft, damage or just relocation.

Bleak landscape
Bleak landscape
Gord said we were lucky to get into this camp because the contractors camp was across a berm and wasn't "as nice". We went there to have a look, and I tell you, it was deplorable. It was dirty, cold, lino broken on the floor, toilets and sinks grunged up, community bathrooms and showers and tiny, crappy rooms. It certainly wasn't a spot for professionals which is what I consider our group. We're not partying, boozing, red-neck pipefitters who move from province to province 5 times a year. A couple years later, Gord was told he had to go to this camp and he refused. I backed him up totally on this, but he never did go back to Diavik.
There were three incidents that stick out in my mind about our trip there. The first was when we had to determine the path a big #4/0 cable took in an overhead cable tray. We checked where it went in, but there was another cable there as well and we didn't know which was which. Unfortunately the cable tray was above the handrail, meaning that one of us had to harness up and go up the stepladder. Gord volunteered and found out which was cable went where. This single act took us about 2 hours to complete.

Corridor seen from outside
Corridor outside
The second incident was when we were on the 7th or 9th floor and I was pushing the cart with all our equipment on it. Gord's helmet was on the bottom shelf of the cart and when I got too close to the handrail, it caught in an upright support and went sailing down to the floor below. We both looked over the handrail in shock and horror as the hardhat hit the concrete floor, scattering the parts that made up the attached ear muffs (for hearing protection). Luckily it didn't hit anyone. (I did a rough calculation and figured it had a terminal velocity of 25 mph). We ran down to retrieve the parts and had a heck of a time finding them all. No one was aware of the safety hazard that was created but Gord thought it necessary to inform the safety supervisor. (He was right of course to do so…I was wrong to want to hide it. I was more embarrassed than worried about a safety infraction). Oh, did I say it was GORD's helmet? Mine was on my head.
And finally the third incident. We had to go into the high security area where they actually sorted the diamonds from "potential" ore. We had to get special permission and go through a number of security doors, all with cameras on them. Once, we got into trouble because we both went through the door instead of one at a time. When we got into this one room where some of the control system was, a security guard glued his eyes on us. Everytime I turned around to see what was in the room, he was staring right back at me. Creepy.
When we left final area where diamonds were being classified and sorted by Xray machines (Xray diffraction indicated a diamond inside a piece of ore and a jet of air blew it off the conveyor), we had to go through the strip search area. Gord went first while I waited behind a door with a red light above it. When I was told to come in, I was greeted by two guys. (Shucks!) They inspected my tools, my notebook, my hair, ears, hands. I had to take my boots off and my coat. They checked my coveralls. Then I had to press this button with a light above it that went either green or red. It turned green and one of the guys told me to open my belt. I thought this meant to take off my clothes and started to pull my pants down but they assured me I didn't have to do that because my light was green. So I asked the obvious question, what happens if it would have turned red? The answer was full strip search. I asked what happened to the guy who came in before me (Gord) and was told he got a red light. Ha ha. I laughed at that – me the rookie getting a "bye" and Gord the old pro at Diavik getting stripped searched again. Gord later told me that out of 10 times he was there, 7 times he was asked to strip. Supposedly pushing the button generates a random result but Gord didn't believe it. I told him maybe it's because the boys there like him, ¦heh heh.

Y2K test bed

The year 2000 was supposed to be a disaster year for all computer operated equipment around the world because most computers stored year dates in 2 digit format, eg 1999 was 99. When the year 2000 was going to ring in, the date would be 00 which could be interpreted as 1900 since the 19 part was always "assumed". 2000 was also a leap year and I believe a leap century. (2000/400=5 so yeah, it's a leap century) Of course all our process control equipment was computer operated or contained microprocessors which could have dates in them that could cause an issue. The alarm had been raised in about 1996 and by 1998 we had lots of plans to fix or reduce the effects of this problem. Emerson, or Fisher Controls at the time, had a plan in place but they were slow in implementing it and didn't test many products that they considered obsolete. Well some of our customers had this obsolete equipment and it was working fine in the 20th century, so customers wanted to keep it. We did take the opportunity to upgrade many of our customers with new equipment as a result of this Y2K scare but many did not, or could not.
I proposed that we create a test bed at Spartan and run our own tests, since we pretty well had one of everything in Calgary or Edmonton. I got a team together and John Chipps became the project manager, with me as the technical supervisor. I had a team of one seasoned engineer (Bruce McLennan) and 3 pseudo-engineers, or engineers in training. I call them that because when they got bored (it was a terribly boring job) they would start to fool around, or not complete the check sheets properly and had to be disciplined by the PM.
I had an old HP1000 mini-computer set up for testing and we rented that to Syncrude for about a week so they could do their own tests. Our sales guys got buy-in from about 10 customers for our test results. Naturally those customers with many sites paid more and the single sites paid less, so Imperial Oil was the big spender for this venture. I believe the entire process generated $1 M in revenue. The document I created was about 700 pages long and I had that scanned and put on CD. I then presented my findings to the customers who came to Calgary to get a summary of what we did, how we did it, the dates we checked and how we checked them, and the results. The results? No problems with anything really. All DEC and HP computers already used the full 4 digit date, for a start and some equipment didn't care about dates, like stand-alone controllers.
On that fateful day, Dec 31, 1999, I was one of the guys who volunteered to man the phones at Spartan for the Provox group. Bill Durrel did the same for his Panel guys and there were a few other guys to cover their own products. Because the clock turned over at the International Date Line in the Pacific a number of hours before it hit us, Bill was able to monitor the Y2K issue worldwide via the web, starting with Australia, then moving across the world from east to west. By the time the "bug" got to London, England, it was apparent that nothing major occurred. Bill called all of us and told us to stay home!
A number of days after the event, there was much written in the press about this "phony bug", that it wasn't really a problem, just an excuse by computer manufacturers to force people to upgrade. Well I don't believe that for one minute, though, as I said, Spartan and Fisher used the event to advantage (for us AND our customers who could get money for any upgrades because of Y2K). I read later what an Information Technology wrote on a blog: "Of course NOTHING happened! All across the world guys like me upgraded hardware, software, rewrote code, checked and rechecked to make sure everything would work. We FIXED the problem, like we were supposed to!" I certainly agree.
diavik dining

Diavik Dining Room