Extra refinery workers a boon for Birch Bay economy

Published on Wed, Mar 21, 2012 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Scheduled maintenance on the oil refineries south of Birch Bay will add thousands of workers to the local population and prove a much appreciated economic boost in the slow winter months.

BP Cherry Point Refinery spokesman Mike Abendhoff said the crews at the BP refinery will ebb and flow over the next six weeks, but top out with as many as 1,000 workers. In addition to regularly scheduled maintenance, workers at the BP refinery are repairing a fire-damaged crude vacuum unit.

The ConocoPhillips refinery just south of the BP facility is also undergoing major maintenance, according to ConocoPhillips spokesman Jeff Callender. Callender said the ConocoPhillips work could bring in as many 1,700 extra total workers, but not all at one time. Crews are working 24 hours per day on 12-hour shifts, with shift changes at 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Abendhoff said BP usually schedules major maintenance every three to four years later in spring, but bumped up the start date this year because of the recent fire that shut down the facility. The scheduled maintenance would have shut down most of the refinery anyway, so BP officials figured it was better to kill two birds with one stone.

“Trying to find extra people almost 30 days [ahead of schedule] was difficult, but we got it done,” Abendhoff said.

The BP refinery typically has maintenance workers on hand 24 hours a day, with some crews working 10- or 12-hour shifts, depending on the specific task. The clean-up work necessitated by the fire also meant extra training on how to handle oil and asbestos, which was used as an insulator on the pipes damaged in the fire.

“It takes quite a bit of training for people to deal with all the issues with asbestos removal,” Abendhoff said. “It takes a uniquely trained individual to be able to do both [asbestos and oil].”

BP does not directly employ the extra workers brought in for the maintenance, but instead relies on contractors that provide crews to refineries across the country. The contractors handle the living arrangements for the crews and keep them staying as close to the refinery as possible.

“They try to direct them into the local communities as best they can,” Abendhoff said.

And the effect on the local community is significant.

John Zuidmeer, owner of the Birch Bay liquor store, said he has seen a noticeable increase in business over the past few weeks. He said the regularly scheduled maintenance at the refineries reliably brings more dollars to retail stores, restaurants, motels and rental cottages all along Birch Bay Drive.

“Everything is full,” Zuidmeer said in reference to rentals in the Birch Bay area. “When [BP] does a larger project like this, it gets really noticeable.”

Zuidmeer has noticed a larger influx of extra workers this year compared to years past. He said the increase in business is especially welcome in the winter, when the tourist season is still months away.

“It’s a nice little boost for everyone,” he said.

Tammy Pearce, co-owner of the Bay Cafe, echoed Zuidmeer’s sentiment. She said the influx of workers in the area every three to four years regularly increases the cafe’s business by at least 50 percent.

The Bay Cafe has been working with BP for the past five years to provide catered lunches at the refinery during the maintenance work. The early start date has caused a bit of a rush for the cafe’s catering services, but Pearce said they plan to be serving lunch at the refinery by March 22.

“We’ve worked hard to get our spot [at the refinery],” she said.

Many workers come to the cafe looking for places to stay, and Pearce is glad to direct them to any of the rental residences in Birch Bay, such as the Driftwood Inn Motel or the cottages at Jacob’s Landing. The workers regularly tell Pearce that Birch Bay is one of the friendliest communities they’ve stayed in.

“If you do a little extra for them they’re so grateful,” Pearce said.

Pearce has met workers from around the world, as well as most of the U.S. She said the crews are typically well behaved and unfailingly polite when they come into her cafe.

“When you hear ‘yes, ma’am, no, ma’am,’ you know they’re from the south,” Pearce said.

Abendhoff said the BP refinery maintenance work is expected to wrap up by May. Residents are advised to avoid the refinery and the Birch Bay Waterslides parking lot, which crews are using as a park and ride, in the early mornings and evenings to limit traffic congestion.

“If you can avoid the 6 to 7 a.m. and 5 to 6 p.m. time frames, I think local folks would get a better commute,” Abendhoff said.