On March 3, with no fanfare, two welders sparked a torch and linked two pieces of pipe in Superior, the final touch in the 1,000-mile Alberta Clipper oil pipeline.
The $1.2 billion Enbridge Energy pipe has been laid, buried where needed, welded, pressure-tested with water and inspected. It will start carrying Canadian crude oil to Superior in several weeks - months earlier than the company expected when work started in September.
"We're ready to go. We're hoping to have the line in service by about April 1," Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Grymala said. "The work is done, and that is a big deal."
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But the big celebration will come, Grymala said, when oil flows through the line.
It was one of the largest construction projects ever in Minnesota, both in cost and in the number of workers on the job at a single time.
Most of the 3,000 construction workers, equipment operators and welders who laid the pipeline already have left for home or for their next pipeline project. Six crews from three pipeline construction companies, about 500 workers in each crew, worked on the 326 miles of pipe laid across northern Minnesota roughly parallel to U.S. Highway 2.
"Having three companies all working on it at the same time, and so many workers, made sure things would keep moving. ... And the weather was very good. We didn't have any delays due to weather," Grymala said.
Though it will take some time before Canadian oil producers start using the new pipeline, the Enbridge expansion eventually will pump another 19 million gallons of oil into the Midwest each day - enough to make 8.8 million gallons of gasoline daily. Most of the oil will flow south to the Chicago area.
The pipeline project continues to be challenged by environmental and Indian activist groups who say the new oil isn't needed, that spills are likely along the route, and that Alberta tar-sands crude oil creates excess pollution, especially carbon dioxide.
While many of the "pipeliners," or pipeline workers, came in crews with out-of-state companies, hundreds were local trade union members - especially laborers, pipefitters, Teamsters and heavy-equipment operators.
"We had a lot of Duluth-area guys on that job at a time when not much else was going on," said Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council.
Many of the 200 or more local laborers on the pipeline were working far more than the 60 hour-a-week regular shift to help get the pipeline done so soon, said Dan Olson, business manager for Laborers Local 1091 in Duluth.
"Most of our guys were going 70 to 80 hours per week on the pipeline from the start," he said. "The only problem was that it had to end. Now a lot of them are waiting for more work."
The project also pumped millions of dollars into the Northland economy - from Superior to the Fond du Lac Reservation to Grand Rapids to Bemidji to Clearbrook - as workers rented rooms, bought groceries and visited local taverns and restaurants.
Katy Hanson at the Forest Lake Motel in Grand Rapids said pipeline construction workers filled rooms during seasons that are often lean. The same could be said for the Americana Motel, owned by the same family.
"We were full the entire time they were here, and that helped a lot," Hanson said. "Except for summer, it can be pretty dead up here."
Dan Stone, president of the Gran Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said the pipeliners were "top-shelf" while they were in town.
"Most people probably didn't see them that often because they were out working so much," Stone said. "But they pumped a lot of money into this community at a time when the rest of the economy hasn't been doing much."
Information from: Duluth News Tribune
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)